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PRABUDDHA BHARATABioethics and Cloning | Swami Satyaswarupananda  







            Bioethics and Cloning




        Swami Satyaswarupananda



      The Evolution of Ethics


     Ethical issues have been confronting humans since prehistoric times. Social life is dependent on internal regulation. Restraint and reciprocity are unavoidable exigencies of social living. A pack of wolves will end its internecine fight once one of them displays submissive behaviour while the same pack tears apart any other animal that happens to stray into its territory. In a herd of elephants moving in search of fresh vegetation, if a calf happens to fall back or stray away, the herd will return, trace the straggler and take it along. If the latter happens to have injured itself, it will be nursed and helped till it can again move with the group. Monkeys helping delouse each other is not an unfamiliar sight. Crow-watchers would have come across a court of crows crowing down or pecking a recalcitrant member into submission. All these acts contain rudiments of what in humans is highly complex ethical behaviour.

     Issues in ethical philosophy as well as normative and applied ethics had engaged thinkers in many an ancient civilization. The concepts of dharma and rita as found in the early Vedic texts and elaborated later in the Upanishads, Brahmanas, Smritis, and Puranas comprise the oldest comprehensive philosophy of ethics. The Ashtanga Magga of Gautama Buddha, the moral imperatives of the Jaina tirthankaras, the Tao of simple and wise living, the 'superior-man' of correct behaviour as envisaged by Confucius, and the moral speculations of the ancient Greek philosophers - from Pythagoras to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - all contain sophisticated ethical concepts that form the basis of much of modern ethical thought.

     The subsequent centuries saw the growth of two distinct strands of ethical thinking: one connected with specific religions - the legalistic traditions of Jewish ethics based on the Old Testament and Islamic ethics derived from the Quran, the moral theology of the Christian Church, the acharas of Sanatana Dharma guided by the Dharmashastras, and so on; the other strand obtained from the works of free thinkers in post-Renaissance Europe. The major themes underpinning ethical discussions undertaken by both these strands have included the following questions: Why should we be moral? What is the source of the moral impulse? Is it natural or prescriptive in origin? Is morality rational or emotive? How does one decide on what is moral? Is moral judgement subjective or are there universal and objective elements to it? That the debate on these issues refuses to die is proof of the paradoxical nature of normative judgement that often impels us to derive the 'ought' (what we should do) from the 'is' (the facts of existence), something that cannot be logically supported, as David Hume pointed out.

     Pragmatism characterizes modern man, and the post-modern is marked by ethical relativism. It would therefore appear that abstract theories of ethics would have little practical relevance in today's world, and this is not totally untrue. Yet, there is currently an unprecedented global interest in applied ethics as is evidenced by the various movements for human (and animal) rights and civil liberties, the formation of various 'liberation' groups with their particular philosophies and even theologies, and the multitude of activists - the pacifists, the environmentalists and the like - all of whom have agenda with strong ethical content. In this burgeoning field of applied ethics, bioethics, dealing with the ethical issues raised by advances in biology and medicine, stands out for its remarkable growth and the number of disciplines that it engages. This growth has been the result of two factors: first, advances in medicine have brought into focus issues at the limits of life - issues relating to prolonging life, euthanasia, non-natural means of conception and abortion, all of which impinge on the sanctity of life, human dignity, right to life and freedom of choice; second, advances in genetic technology, including the complete decoding of the human genome and understanding the biology of embryonic cells with their potential to form any type of tissue, now provide us with the ability to tailor the structure and function of cells, tissues and even entire individuals. This, obviously, has tremendous moral implications. Cloning is one technological advancement that exemplifies these issues, and a brief examination may be worthwhile.


     What is Cloning?


     A group of genetically identical cells comprise a clone. All our body cells are genetically uniform and are therefore clones of each other. Organisms reproducing by asexual means like amoebae, bacteria or hydra also give rise to clones - the entire organism being a clone of its parent. The plants that we grow from cuttings in our garden are also clones of the mother plant. In the 1980s scientists learnt to clone mice by transferring the nucleus of an embryonic cell into a mouse ovum from which the nucleus (containing genetic material) had been removed. This fusion cell, when implanted into the mouse uterus, started dividing and led to the formation of a mouse pup with all its genetic material derived from one parental source. In 1997, Ian Wilmut managed to clone an entire sheep - the famous Dolly - by this method of 'nuclear transfer'. What was novel about Wilmut's process was that he obtained the nucleus from the udder cell of a donor sheep, and udder cells are terminally differentiated cells, that is, they are mature tissue cells that were till then thought incapable of taking part in fresh tissue formation. The chemical environment of the ovum apparently 'tricked' the genes in the transferred nucleus into behaving like the genetic material of an embryonic cell (called a 'pluripotent stem cell' as it can participate in the formation of all types of tissues). This process, called 'adult somatic cell nuclear transfer', thus led to the formation of a clone with genetic material derived from a non-reproductive tissue.

     This type of cloning, called 'reproductive cloning' because it is used for reproductive purposes, raised a furore among ethicists who believed that such methods applied to humans can be badly misused. Popular imagination took this to be 'playing God', and popular writers warned of the possibility of planned creation of Frankenstein's monsters; if one Hitler was enough to ravage the world, what would happen if ten Hitler clones were let loose! Concerns were also raised about the psychological effects on the cloned offspring arising from its artificial birth and its total genetic identity with one parent.

     Most of these speculations do not stand up to scientific scrutiny for the simple reason that clones are highly unlikely to show behaviour identical to their parents, for behaviour is heavily influenced by environmental factors. The growth of the human brain is markedly influenced by the type of stimulation it receives in the years after birth and this stimulation keeps moulding the brain in adult life too. So differences in environmental factors will themselves ensure against behavioural identity. Moreover, Hitler was as much a product of history as he was of his genes and his upbringing; and a simultaneous reproduction of all these factors can safely be ruled out. Even identical twins that are natural clones rarely show identical behaviour despite similar upbringing. Nor has their genetic identity been found to cause any adverse psychological effect.

     Yet there are hardly any credible scientists who support human reproductive cloning. This is because the process is not only very inefficient but also entails considerable risk. The genetic reprogramming required of the adult nucleus for it to initiate the formation of the embryo is hardly ever as correct as that obtained from normal reproductive tissue; so the cloned animals invariably have some organic defect. Consequently, there is a well-justified, effective global moratorium on human reproductive cloning.

     The promise of adult nuclear transfer lies elsewhere, in a process called 'therapeutic cloning'. If after nuclear transfer the developing embryonic cells, instead of being implanted into a womb, are artificially cultured in vitro, they give rise to a clone of embryonic stem cells instead of a foetus. These cells can then be chemically induced to transform themselves into virtually any type of tissue cell which can be reinjected or transplanted into the original donor to correct various deficiencies in tissue function like diabetes or Parkinson's disease. This technology holds out great hope for many incurable conditions and also the promise of more cost- effective therapies.

     The moral objections to therapeutic cloning are more fundamental. If human cells and embryos are living entities, can experimentation with these be morally justified? Also, does not the commercialization of these tissues and processes violate human dignity? These questions provide us with an appropriate point of departure for examining the Vedantic view of human life and biological development, for it is this understanding that will help us formulate an answer to these questions.


     The Upanishadic View of Life and Transmigration


     An understanding of the Vedantic view of life is essential to an appreciation of its ethical viewpoint. Three ideas are crucial to this understanding: one, individual life, as perceived by the Upanishads, is only one component in an intricately interlinked mass of Consciousness that is life; two, our present existence as living subjects is only one of a series of transmigratory existences that we have been having since time immemorial; three, the experiencing and transmigratory subject (jivatman) is distinct from the physical body derived from genetic material contributed by parents.

     A description of the process of transmigration is provided by the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Acharya Shankara introduces the matter in the following words: 'Now the question is, when the self loaded with knowledge etc., is about to go to another body, does it leave the old body and go to another, like a bird going to another tree? [This is the Jaina view.] Or is it carried by another body serving as a vehicle to the place where, according to its past work, it is to be born? [This is the view of the devatavadins.] Or does it stay here, while its organs become all-pervading and function as such? [This is the Sankhya view.] Or is it that so long as it remains in the body, its organs are contracted to the body's limits, but when it dies they become all-pervading - like the light of a lamp when the (enclosing) jar is broken - and contract again when a new body is made? [This is the Vedantic view.]' (1) The Vedantic view is supported by Upanishadic texts that explicate the pervasive nature of the sense organs (in their subtle form) (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.5.13) and their contraction to (or identification with) the limits of specific physical bodies. (Ibid., 1.3.22) The same Upanishad figuratively illustrates the process of transmigration with the example of a moving leech: 'Just as a leech moving on a blade of grass reaches its end, takes hold of another support, and draws itself together towards it, so does the self (jivatman) throw this body aside … take hold of another support, and draw itself together towards it.' (Ibid., 4.4.3)

     This alternate body, however, is not the gross body that the jivatman is finally destined to take up. It is a subtle body, predominantly aqueous, that must first move through several distinct phases as delineated in the 'panchagni-vidya' sections of the Chandogya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads. (Chandogya, 5.3-10 and Brihadaranyaka, 6.2) Three courses are open to the jivatman: the bright northern course of the gods (devayana) for those exclusively devoted to meditation; the darker southern course of the manes (pitriyana) for those who have led dharmic lives, performed scriptural rituals and engaged in welfare activities; and the third course for evil-doers that leads to non-human birth, either directly or after hellish experiences. The devayana and pitriyana are characterized by ascent through various states like the solar and lunar spheres, which are, as Swami Vivekananda explains, 'visions (that) rise in succession before the jiva, who himself neither goes nor comes'. (2) The descent along pitriyana is the prototypal descent, marked by identification in succession with clouds, rain, crops, the man eating these crops, and finally with a particular woman at the time of conception. These identities, again, are only abstract concepts and not gross transformations, as Acharya Shankara has clarified in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras. (3)

     These concepts may not appear easily intelligible, but they reflect the fact that Consciousness underpins all existence and can manifest in specific forms. This Consciousness is not to be confused with awareness, for the jivatman's identity with rain, plants, and such other stages in its transmigratory path are not marked by awareness. (4) Hence the conceptus in its early embryonic and foetal stages in the mother's womb is not considered a separate individual. Its individuality is established only when the jivatman actually 'enters' it and establishes a psychic identity, for the jivatman is nothing but the transmigrating psychic apparatus comprising the mind and related sense organs in their subtle form. According to the Garbha Upanishad, a text that deals with human embryonic development, this entry occurs in the seventh month of foetal life. This was also the time that the foetus was traditionally considered to take to reach biological viability, or the ability to survive outside the mother's womb. However, with advances in medical technology, foetuses delivered several weeks earlier can now be helped to survive.

     This psychic identity associated with viability establishes the individuality of the developing baby. It is then subject to awareness (albeit in rudimentary forms) and the Upanishadic and Puranic texts cite many instances of remarkably heightened awareness of the baby in the womb.

     It is important that though viability marks the embodiment of the jivatman, yet the earlier embryonic stages are not considered non-living, for the integrity of cellular and tissue structure is evidence of the presence of active prana (the synonym for 'life'). At this early stage, however, the prana is dependent on maternal support. (5) This distinction between life and its supporting Consciousness is indicated by Yajnavalkya during one of the debates in King Janaka's court when he asks his interlocutors, 'If a tree, after it is felled, springs forth anew from its root, from what root does a man spring forth after being cut down by death?' and then immediately warns, 'Do not say, "From the seed", for that is produced from a living man.' (6)


     Is Cloning Ethical?


     From the above-mentioned facts it may be deduced that any injury to the viable foetus is likely to cause psychic injury to the jivatman and will lead to karmic repercussions. Injury or loss in the earlier embryonic stages are not likely to have these effects, yet the presence of prana demands that even the embryo be treated with respect.

     Is experimentation on embryonic tissue then morally wrong? The Vedantic answer to this question depends not so much on the act as on the attitude behind the act. The entire thrust of the Bhagavadgita is on the importance of attitudes. Devoid of selfish motives and done with the general good in mind even apparently injurious actions have no moral repercussions. Selfish motives can give even seemingly altruistic actions a morally negative charge.

     The justification for cloning and related issues of bioethical concern must therefore be sought not in the specifics of these processes, but in the motives that impel us to choose them. It is up to the concerned individuals to be clear about their motives, and for society to exercise control when the motives of its members go astray.

     An accurate understanding of the scientific facts is, for sure, necessary to clear misconceptions and prejudices before one can arrive at a sound ethical judgement; but deeper ethical issues may prove more intractable.

     International organizations like the UNESCO have been holding wide-ranging consultations to formulate norms and policies to regulate biotechnology. Swami Jitatmanandaji's presentation of the Hindu view of ethics (the concluding portion of which appears in this issue) was a part of this process. There are also strict international legal norms (exemplified by the Nuremberg Code) for conducting biological research. These aim to prevent a repeat of the unethical and inhuman use of men and women as subjects of biological research in Nazi Germany. But there are few instruments to regulate the equitable distribution of the fruits of research.

     Therapeutic cloning promises a whole range of remedies for presently incurable conditions. But whether these will be available to the villages around Mayavati or the bushmen in Africa, and at what cost, is the big question. A free-market economy allows few ethical checks on pricing and availability. In societies where welfare measures are inadequate and budgetary allocations for health insubstantial (as is the case in India), costly and inappropriate technologies can prove a big burden.

     The presence of gross socio-economic disparities can, therefore, often render plain biological views of ethics redundant. In fact, under such conditions, 'biological arguments can trivialize ethics and distract our attention from real moral issues: the ways in which the genetic potential of humans born into impoverished environments today is stunted and thwarted'. As Leon Eisenberg of Harvard Medical School has rightly observed, 'had we the moral commitment to provide every child with what we desire for our own, what a flowering of humankind there would be.'



1. Shankaracharya's commentary on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.3.
2. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 103.
3. Shankaracharya's commentary on Brahma Sutras, 3.1.22.
4. Brahma Sutras, 3.1.24.
5. Aitareya Upanishad 2.1.2.
6. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015









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