London, Aug. 21: In 2001, President Bush curbed funding of stem cell research. The decision ' shaped at least partly by the Republican Party’s evangelical Christian base ' provoked joy in India. It was felt that US qualms about stem cell research could open a huge opportunity.
Just four years later, this wish has come true.
According to Ernst & Young’s Global Biotechnology Report in 2004, Indian biotech firms are expected to grow ten-fold in the next five years, creating more than a million jobs.
With more than 10,000 highly trained and cheaply available scientists, India is one of the leading biotech powers along with South Korea, Singapore, China, Japan, Sweden, Britain and Israel.
The Reliance group owns Reliance Life Sciences, which is trying to devise new treatments for diabetes as well as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and create human skin, blood and replacement organs genetically matched to their recipients. Some researchers have even more ambitious ideas: they plan to clone the endangered species of Indian lions and cheetahs.
US scientists and businessmen note enviously that religious and moral considerations do not seem to inhibit Indian biotechnologists. But this indifference to ethical issues would have certainly appalled Gandhi.
The Mahatma accused Western medicine, and much of modern science and technology, of inflicting violence on human nature. His vegetarianism and belief in non-violence were derived from Indian traditions, mainly Hinduism.
Indeed, most evangelical Christians, who believe that the embryo is a person, may find more support in Hindu texts than in the Bible.
Many Hindus see the soul ' atman ' as the spiritual and imperishable component of human personality. After death destroys the body, the soul soon finds a new temporal home. Thus, for Hindus and Catholics, life begins at conception.
Ayurveda assumes foetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. The same assumption is implicit in the Mahabharat.
In one of its stories, Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife Subhadra a seven-stage military strategy. His yet- to-be-born son Abhimanyu is listening, too. As Arjuna describes the last stage, Subhadra falls asleep. Years later, fighting the Kauravas, Abhimanyu uses well the military training he has learned in his mother’s womb, until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed.
But Hinduism is less monolithic than Islam and Christianity; it can yield contradictory arguments.
The Mahabharat has a story about how the 100 Kauravas came into being. Their mother Gandhari had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years from which the Kauravas emerged.
Indian backers of stem cell research often offer this story as an early instance of human cloning through stem cells extracted from embryos.
But spiritual tradition cannot solve all the ethical issues raised by science’s progress. Ultrasound scans help many Indian women to abort female foetuses. The trade in human organs, especially kidneys, remains big business.
As stem cell research grows in India, and remains unregulated, a small industry devoted to the creation of human embryos might soon develop.
Stem cell research is also expensive. The advanced treatments promised by biotechnology are likely to benefit the rich, at least for the first few years.
In the meantime, the poor may be asked to offer themselves as guinea pigs.
Last year, a magazine article asserted: “India has another gold mine ' the world’s largest population of ‘naive’ sick patients, on whom no medicine has ever been tried. India’s distinct communities and large families are ideal subjects for genetic and clinical research.”