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Bioethical Issues - A Sikh Perspective


Jun 1, 2004
Bioethical Issues: A Sikh Perspective
Whether it is euthanasia, the morning-after pill, abortion and fertility drugs, gene therapy or the prospect of cloning organs and organisms, the pace of advance in modern biological sciences is bewildering. The possibilities emerging from the cutting edge of science did not exist when most religious systems evolved. Yet, if religious and ethical values are to be timeless, followers will look to their religion to guide them through the complex issues that affect their lives.
Religions are increasingly attempting to posit relevant responses to contemporary problems in bioethics. Many questions emerge once this Pandora’s box is opened. When does life begin, at conception or sometime later? Is abortion always murder? Is euthanasia permissible? Is cloning invariably sinful?
What does Sikhism say about these and similar issues? These questions cannot be denied just because they did not surface when Sikhism arose. Sikh scriptures, however, do not pronounce clear, unequivocal dicta on the issues that arise from biotechnology. Then how is Sikhism to guide us in our lives?
Some Sikhs, too, attempt to p{censored} their spiritual texts (gurbani)[/FONT] to ferret out answers to complex bioethical issues. In writing this paper, when I requested gurbani [/FONT]citations from my more erudite Sikh friends, I received reams of them. Some, for example, recognized a life only if it was dedicated to God; the rest may as well have no right to life. Others asserted that since God protects the unborn child in the womb, no one might terminate a pregnancy under any condition. Even if conception resulted from gang rape or incest, they contended, such was God’s will and no alternative was possible or acceptable.
However, Sikhism clearly instructs that it is just as much in God’s will that humans be granted the knowledge of science, a discerning intellect and the opportunity to explore both. They must be used to human benefit. Otherwise we would be honor bound to reject all medications and surgical procedures, as well as technological advances that make life livable. The question then becomes not what is technologically feasible but what is morally and ethically right.
Before we yield to the temptation to analyze each issue from the perspective of a religion, we need to examine what the role of a religion should be in the life of its followers.
People of faith recognize that the ultimate reality lies beyond our senses and also transcends the intellectual process. Theologians continue to wrestle with the problem of how to make sense of science without man losing the sense of his humanity. On the other hand, scientists seem to feel that the establishment of facts or evidence, which is their domain, obviates the need to explore and understand their ethical implications. In this process, science often becomes the new religion and the scientists its new shamans or priests.
In fact, science and religion are complementary — two sides of a coin. Science explores order in existence; religion must find meaning in it. One would be pointless without the other. Unfortunately, between the scientists’ lack of concern with the meaning of their work and the priests’ ignorance or fear of science, both destroy what they aim to love and understand — the human heart, mind, body and soul.
If religious thinkers appear to create rules that descend into dogma, scientists are often so lost in their own pursuit of objectivity that they see little that is worthy in a religion’s concerns. Scientists frequently seem to treat scientific knowledge as some religious people treat religious scriptures — as an open book that needs no further interpretation on application. I think both show human failing — inevitable in humans.
Science clearly changes with the times. On the other hand, religious insights, though made at a point in time and space, are made for all time, or else they would have no value. Scientific findings are hypotheses, tentatively held, not for all time, to be revised or discarded as new observations occur. It is tempting to take what is written for all eternity and apply it literally to what science reveals to us at a given point in time. Since religious writings are meant to transcend time, interpreters of religion often look to the literal meaning of their texts and apply them literally to the situations that vex humanity. When we interpret in literal terms what needs to be understood with some sensitivity, confusion and conflict become inevitable. My point here is best illustrated by the controversy over the meaning of specific paragraphs in Genesis in the Old Testament. They are best seen as metaphorical truths, not to be literally understood.
With time and scientific knowledge, technology and information do and will change. New issues arise that demand new responses. Changing circumstances and the changing information base need to be interpreted in the light of the unchanging principles by our discerning intellect. And that is the uncomfortable challenge for modern religion.
A consistent purpose of Sikhism is to provide a clearly defined path to make humans — creatures with a moral sense — into ethical and moral beings, consistent with their tradition and teaching. Sikhism, therefore, exhorts us to recognize the divine spark within ourselves and awaken our moral sense.
For example, in the Sikh view, birth control devices need not become matters of conflict if they are responsibly used in a responsible setting. But sexual promiscuity or irresponsible sexual behavior is a moral, religious matter because it has implications for society and individual responsibility. This would perhaps be the position of many, if not most, people in this country. Yet, there are also strong arguments — such as the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Jewish views — that contend that use of any and all birth control devices is sinful.
Look at the polarization of contemporary North American society on the issue of abortion. Is abortion murder? When does life begin, at conception as Roman Catholics maintain or at 120 days as some Sikhs (the followers of Yogi Bhajan) assert? Where is incontrovertible evidence for either claim? Should we contend that life begins when we detect a heartbeat? Ironically, at present we have clear medical criteria for the end of life on which most scholars agree — cessation of brain activity — but not for its beginning.
Should the standard for abortion be that it is allowed as long as it is medically safe and economically feasible? Should abortion be available on demand to any woman on the grounds that it is for her to decide what to do with her body? If so, should public facilities for abortion be available? Should a prospective father’s opinion or that of society count? Or is it strictly a private matter in which any regulation would be an intrusion? Since reproductive issues affect society, the community and the family, they cannot always remain the concern of the prospective mother alone. These are societal and economic issues with ethical, moral implications.
From the Sikh perspective, however, abortion as a routine method of birth control is unethical because repeated multiple abortions are a testimony to irresponsible sexual behavior, and because they can result in permanent damage to a woman’s body. To abort a fetus because it is a female and society does not place equal value on girls would be unethical and sinful. Clearly, it would be sinful to abort a child just because raising it would be inconvenient to one’s lifestyle or uneconomical. But when does an inconvenience become a compelling reason?
Undoubtedly, the prospective mother deserves to be the primary determinant of her need for an abortion, but should hers be the only voice? A rapist’s view is irrelevant, but how about a responsible father’s? Even the Roman Catholic Church, which remains adamantly opposed to abortion, allows at least one mitigating circumstance — when the mother’s life is in danger. How about incest or rape? They do occur and they also have societal implications. Why must a woman suffer the consequences, which will be long-term? In such limited circumstances Sikhism would approve of abortion.
Is euthanasia permissible? It would be good to get a sense of what euthanasia is. Suicide is against the law everywhere, and so is murder. When is euthanasia assisted suicide, when is it kindness, when is it murder? Are parents a burden when they are nonproductive? The old rarely contribute to the economic welfare of a society but often become a drain on it. Yet no one would seriously argue that a life should end when retirement benefits are no longer adequate. How about when a person is in intractable pain or so medically compromised that our much-vaunted technological, scientific acumen cannot ease the burden? How are we to rate the quality of life and determine that it has degraded to such an extent that continuation of life is a cross that one need not bear. Such considerations would have to be weighed against the Sikh injunction that life is a gift from God; not to value such a rare gift would be sinful.
Nobody would question the virtues of gene therapy and DNA hybridization technology to cure or prevent diseases or malformations. But how about cloning? Is it a sin? Does it matter whether we clone viruses, earthworms, sheep, hearts or people? What if we clone tomatoes, apples and oranges? There may not be much objection to cloning oranges or apples. We all prefer fruit that is uniformly of a certain quality, appearance and flavor.
The ability to clone a kidney may not be undesirable. There is an organ shortage in the world and endless waiting lists for liver, lung or kidney transplants. There is even a trade in such organs, particularly in the poorer parts of the world where people will sell a kidney, lung or even a child. Such a trade would be unethical, and hence contrary to Sikh belief. If your descendents donate your cornea or kidney at your death, their actions should be lauded. But what if they decided to sell your body parts? Is selling body parts equally unacceptable when a man sells a kidney to feed his children?
It is good to remember that you can clone cells or organs but cannot really clone humans. Yes, you can make a human in vitro in a test tube, much as in the case of the sheep Daisy a few years ago, but the human is a product of his genes interacting with his very complex environment. Even identical twins differ in essential ways. In the Sikh view a trade in organs would be unethical; cloning of humans is playing God rather than walking in His will. Neither action would rate approval.
The question then arises: From where is approval or disapproval of an action going to come? Many actions in life are undesirable but may become necessary or even inevitable. This is where an ethical framework provided by religion becomes necessary.
Sikhism — either in its philosophy (Guru Granth),[/FONT] its history or its Rehat Maryada[/FONT] (Code of Conduct) — has never tried to spell out in excruciating detail individual behavior in such matters. The Gurus recognized that time and new technology would pose new questions every day; this was their genius. Each question, then, has to be approached from the bedrock of Sikh ethical values and judged apropos of the situation. Many regard this silence on specific issues to be the weakness of the Sikh tradition. I submit it is our strength. I know that where followers of a religion want dogma and exact certitude, I am offering only tentative hypotheses and an analytic process.
Essentially Sikhism poses a challenge: Before committing to an action, a human being must delve into his or her essential being — into the core values and traditions that have shaped him or her — must consult others and must decide on an action for which he or she alone must take full responsibility. Inherent in Sikh teaching is the principle that all rights come with responsibilities and no actions are free of accountability.
In any moral dilemma, whether it is euthanasia or abortion, the perspective is all-important. Not many actions can be universally condemned in all situations at all times; exceptions abound to most general rules. For instance, the killing of another human is universally condemned, but in times of war or in self-defense it may be a virtue, not a sin or a crime. Instead of providing fixed, unchanging answers to changing problems, Sikhism provides an unchanging process based on a moral framework in which one can devise moral and ethical criteria by which an ethical dilemma can be negotiated.
In Sikhism, therefore, it would be futile to look for a precise answer for every bioethically related moral predicament that exists today. One needs to understand the personal and societal realities and interpret the impasse in the light of Sikh teaching. It would be useful to keep in mind that as long as there is economic disparity in the world, people will sell what they have, what they are or even their souls.
The foundations of Sikh ethics are the teachings of Sikhism, the lives of the Gurus and 500 years of Sikh tradition. Sikhism focuses on self-development and self-realization. In this process the sangat[/FONT] — a congregation of similarly dedicated people — becomes critically important. Sikhism asserts that God and Guru pervade such a congregation joined in mindful prayer. Recognize the divine spark within you, Sikhism says, so that in every action you are guided by the Infinite within. Furthermore, Sikhism continues to emphasize that this divine spark is discovered and nurtured by love, by service to humanity and by recognition of the same spark in all of us. This means that instead of a self-centered or self-absorbed view, in any contemplated action one would ask, would the Guru approve of what I am about to do? Or as Immanuel Kant might inquire: “If everyone did what I am about to do, would it be all right?”
The discerning intellect that Sikhism asks of its followers is far from perfect, but it grows only by use, prayer and grace. In this the role of the Sikh community, the sangat,[/FONT] becomes paramount; the process does not occur in isolation. Individual choices are thus ratified by the community that nurtures the person. Said another way, in a very real sense individual lives exist as biosocial contracts within the historical framework of a community. In Sikhism the voices and concerns of the community are channeled through five seats (Takhts)[/FONT] of authority. In matters that widely affect the life of the community, directives can be issued from the Takhts[/FONT] after a due deliberative process.
What the Sikh way does, in my view, is to present a very necessary challenge to the individual. I call it necessary for it contributes to individual development, and isn’t that the ultimate purpose of religion? This is what, I believe, Guru Gobind Singh meant when he exhorted his Khalsa[/FONT] to engage in battle every day. The battlefield of the mind is what he had in mind. It means to walk down the road less traveled. This is how I interpret the teachings of Guru Granth[/FONT] that summon us to discover the divinity in each of us.
The questions of bioethics that arise from technology are not unexpected or unusual; time and progress will give us many more. To be human, humans must think about what makes them human. But being human is not simply a biological question. It lies at the core of the human existence that transcends human biology. Sikhism teaches us not to look for quick answers, nor to be afraid of the questions and where they might lead us.

I.J. Singh 2001 Bioethical Issues: A Sikh Perspective. From: THE SIKH WAY: A Pilgrim’s Progress, The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Pages19-26

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