The new discoveries in biology promise important medical benefits, but they also raise new and troubling ethical questions. Stem cell research is one area on the leading edge. It has been in the news with of the announcement by the Canadian Institute of Health Research of its proposals for ethical guidelines. Stem cells are cells which have the potential for growing into any other type of cell. They occur most abundantly in the earliest stages of the embryo, before the differentiation into organs begins. Another very similar type of stem cell is found in small concentrations in adult bone marrow. Medical researchers think that the use of these cells might be able to help sufferers from diseases as diverse as diabetes, parkinsons or spinal cord injury.
The ethical dilemma arises because the easiest source of these cells is the human embryo. The proposed guidelines would allow the use of aborted tissue and surplus embryos from in vitro ("test-tube") fertility clinics. They would not allow researchers to start embryos for research purposes.
The question as to whether such research should be allowed touches on the more fundamental question as to when a human life begins. This question is one of both science and metaphysics. Unfortunately, it seems to have been decided on purely political grounds with the victory of the pro-choice movement. They are, for obvious reasons, unable to admit that there might be a living being before birth.
In the Buddhist view of human life, the mind is not seen as reducible to matter, but the two are seen as separate and mutually supporting. The teaching of the "Dependent Origination" describes in detail how existence occurs and it is noteworthy that consciousness is described as the cause of body-and-mind. In regard to the issues we are considering here, we could say that the development of the physical form of the embryo is in some sense guided by the consciousness which is present from conception.
This idea may not be so far-fetched. Science has a very good and detailed explanation of how DNA controls protein synthesis, but the mechanism that governs formation of specific organs from undifferentiated stem-cells is still largely a mystery. The radical biologist Rupert Sheldrake has suggested that there is some kind of non-material field that controls this process, which would be another name for Mind in the Buddhist sense.
The Buddhist scriptures define the beginning of life as the moment when three elements come together, the "seed of the father, the blood of the mother in her time, and the consciousness seeking rebirth." The difficulty in the case of stem cell research, for a Buddhist, then becomes a matter of defining conception. Is an embryo begun outside of a human womb really a complete being? We would have to know the unknowable to answer that.
If ethical guidelines are devised entirely from the materialist viewpoint, backed up by the abortion lobby, these questions will not even be considered. On the other hand, there are strong reasons to be careful about a ban as well. Stem cell research does hold out considerable promise to relieve what has hitherto been incurable suffering, and Buddhists should first and foremost be for anything that relieves human suffering.
In this case, however, there may be a middle way. As mentioned at the outset, embryos are not the only source of stem-cells. Research on stem-cells derived from adult tissue avoids all the ethical dilemmas, and may even be medically superior for immunological reasons. (see "Weekly Standard" for March 26, 2001.) If our society took seriously the human dignity of the unborn, we would have a strong moral incentive to investigate this option more vigorously. It may just be possible to cure people without destroying any embryos at all.