by Sesa Das (ACBSP)
As a perplexed young brahmacari approached the Temple President’s office for the third time that morning, he saw a notice posted on the door. It was a meme that read, “Your latest existential crisis does not constitute an emergency on my part. Go read Bhagavad Gita.” Disappointed, the brahmacari paused and murmured “to knock or not to knock, that is the question.” Finally, he turned from the door and in a louder, clearly frustrated voice, said “But it’s about the Covid-19 vaccine. To take the vaccine or not to take the vaccine.” No response was heard from behind the closed office door.
Apparently, this young brahmacari is not alone in seeking guidance on the moral and ethical issues raised by vaccines for Covid-19. As the effects of the global pandemic have reached every corner of the planet, people worldwide have pinned their hopes on medical science to produce a safe and effective vaccine. Governments are now approving vaccines and are in the process of inoculating people as quickly as possible. Yet, moral and ethical concerns continue to surface.
Writing for Vatican News (https://www.vaticannews.va/en/) on December 15, 2020, Lisa Zengarini, reported
As the United States gear up for its largest ever immunization campaign against COVID-19, the US Bishops have decided to further clarify the Church’s position regarding vaccines that have some connection to cell lines originating from aborted foetuses, reminding that since the beginning of the pandemic it has advocated for the development of a vaccine that has no link to abortion.
In a statement released on December 14, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities reiterate that, given the urgency of the crisis, “the lack of available alternative vaccines, and the fact that the connection between an abortion that occurred decades ago and receiving a vaccine produced today is remote, inoculation with the new COVID-19 vaccines in these circumstances can be morally justified”.
The Catholic Church’s use of edict to provide moral and ethical guidance has been a timely and effective means of reaching their millions of followers worldwide. However, a one size fits all approach is not likely to pacify everybody. From our inquisitive young brahmacari to rural farmers in China, people from different walks are motivated by different conceptions of life. The diversity of those who may or may not be faced with the opportunity, choice, or obligation to take the Covid-19 vaccine dictates broader approach to moral and ethical issues raised by the vaccine. We turn first to the Bioethics.
Bioethicists often refer to the four basic principles of health care ethics when evaluating the merits and difficulties of medical procedures. Ideally, for a medical practice to be considered “ethical”, it must respect all four of these principles: autonomy, justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence. (Beauchamp and Childress, The Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 1979)
Autonomy – the right to make choices for yourself
Justice – that medicine is practiced fairly, with equal concern for all patients
Beneficence – that procedures be provided with the intent of doing good for the patient involved
Non-maleficence – that a procedure does not harm the patient involved or others in society.
Applying these four principles to the same issues which provoked the Catholic Church’s Statement, i.e. vaccines being manufactured with cell lines originating from aborted foetuses, a bioethical analysis would attempt to weigh the various concerns, then balance the often competing interaction of the four principles with issues such as 1) urgency of the crisis; 2) lack of available alternative vaccines; 3) risk to public health; and 4) time since the connection with the original cell lines. Thus, being informed one gets guidance on how to make ethical decisions in a given situation.
Thomas R. McCormick, D.Min., Senior Lecturer Emeritus, Dept. Bioethics and Humanities, School of Medicine, University of Washington writes about making bioethical choices: “Ethical choices, both minor and major, confront us every day in the provision of health care for persons with diverse values living in a pluralistic and multicultural society. In the face of such diversity, where can we find moral action guides when there is confusion or conflict about what ought to be done? Such guidelines would need to be broadly acceptable among the religious and the nonreligious and for persons across many different cultures. Due to the many variables that exist in the context of clinical cases as well as the fact that in health care there are several ethical principles that seem to be applicable in many situations these principles are not considered absolutes but serve as powerful action guides in clinical medicine.” https://depts.washington.edu/bhdept/ethics-medicine/bioethics-topics/articles/principles-bioethics
Bioethics is a relatively new field, but it pursues a familiar aspiration of ethicists who have long sought universal principles in ethics which are applicable to all people, in all circumstances, at all times and at all places. Are there such universally applicable ethical guidelines anywhere to be found? Turns out there is such a system of ethics and here is why it works in bioethics and other fields of applied ethics.
“The Bhagavad-Gita advocates a consciousness and a spirit-centered approach to the subject of ethics based on eternal values and moral principles that should govern the conduct of administrators. The teachings, Krishna outlined to Arjuna form a system of ethics that has withstood the test of time.” (www.rajras.in › ethics-bhagavad-gita-role-administration)
It is very interesting to note that Bhagavad Gita has six principles teachings which are closely matched by the Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Here is the story of Bhagavad Gita.
Thousands of years ago two friends, Krishna, the Supreme Lord, and Prince Arjuna spoke about life’s most relevant questions. The setting was a battlefield, the issues urgent, and the resulting text, the Bhagavad-gita, The Song of God, has become an important contribution to the philosophical and spiritual literature of the world.
The six Gita principles presented below are selected because they help one understand the worldview that forms the basis of Krishna’s ethical advice to Arjuna. Ethical advice that moves one’s vision, deeds, and character toward universal resolutions.
These Gita principles are governed by Bhakti, a word that means “to share” which is always used in relation to the Supreme. They can thus help one to discern what he or she can do to develop a relationship with the Supreme, all living beings, and all circumstances in which we live.
Sama Darshana (equal vision) – Corresponds with the Principle of Justice in Biomedical Ethics
The Gita’s idea of equal vision speaks of the equality of all living beings, where life is respected regardless of race, gender, caste, creed, or species. This rests on the understanding that the energy we call life is not a temporary material energy but an eternal spiritual energy. Thus, Krishna says that the wise see a saint, a laborer, a dog and an elephant with equal vision, and – while acknowledging their material differences –sees real substance in their spiritual equality. This vision awards personhood to all, links everyone with God, and consequently with each other. It does not consider human dignity to be the natural basis of civilization, but instead the dignity of all life.
Icchā means desire. The Gita begins by Arjuna making a choice to seek guidance from his friend Krishna. Krishna concludes his Gita by recognizing that after offering his opinion Arjuna will do as Arjuna desires. Krishna has spoken to Arjuna openly, truthfully, and with affection. He has not been demanding or dogmatic. By leaving the choice to Arjuna, Krishna has acknowledged this freedom. Thus, Arjuna can freely choose his relationship with Krishna, his service and responsibilities, and fight or flight on the battlefield. The Gita establishes that love depends on individual choice.
Ahimsa (without harm)– Corresponds with the Principle of Non-maleficence in Biomedical Ethics
Ahimsa means to act in a way that causes the least harm. In the Mahabharata Krishna says that all dharma, all good acts, are dependent on this one principle. The context of the Gita, a
battlefield, helps us appreciate that ahimsa does not mean pacifism. Nevertheless, a life of ahimsa does include avoiding violence, the harm of offering cruel words, of making other’s lives
distressed or confused, of withholding knowledge or insight, and of being neglectful of ourselves. In the Gita Krishna asks us to consider loka sangraha – the welfare of the world, and
sarva-bhuta-hita –the welfare of all beings. Ahimsa encourages such a life dedicated to truth,
dharma, and spirituality, allowing us to be better servants of God and the greater good.
Acharya (teaching by example) – Corresponds with the Principles of Autonomy, Justice, Beneficence, and Non-maleficence in Biomedical Ethics
The word acharya means one who leads and teaches by example. The Acharya, by behaviour, shows what can be done; how we can live a full life with a minimum of possessions; how a dedicated life of service gladdens the heart; and how a spiritual life is a practical life. The
Acharyas inspire integrity and good character in others by the standards they set. Teaching by
example is the essence of education. Leading by example is the essence of government.
Exemplifying one’s principles is the basis of dignity, respect, and trust.
Amānitva (humility) – Corresponds with the Principles of Autonomy, Justice, Beneficence, and Non-maleficence in Biomedical Ethics
Humility in the Gita is a virtue which is seen in behavior, but which rests on understanding. Humility is the quality of not being anxious to be honored by others. Humility aided Arjuna to understand himself and what he must do in the greater scheme of things. Humility is not weak. It nurtured Arjuna’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and courage. It allowed him to know, love, and serve God. It perfumes our communication, is the jewel of the broadminded, and is the key to a spiritual life. It is the most attractive quality we can possess.
Prīti (affection) – Corresponds with the Principles of Beneficence in Biomedical Ethics
In the Gita Arjuna listens to all the advice given by Krishna and choses his path because he wants to please him. His relationship with Krishna is based on love and Krishna has shared his knowledge with Arjuna because of this love. All of the principles we have mentioned are enriched by our ability to offer and receive affection. Love for God develops our kindness, our gratitude, and our concern. Our ability to be compassionate and tolerant is nourished by affection. Preaching is excellent when graced with a concern born of affection, and our affection for God should be apparent in all our dealings – as the quality of a rose is apparent by its scent.
As stated above, these six principles found in Bhagavad Gita are grounded in consciousness and a spirit-centered approach to the subject of ethics. By seeing all living beings in their true spiritual nature, the barriers of material designations which stand between us disappear or at the very least become more manageable. As a result, the Gita Principles are able to effectively address the problems raised by McCormick when he says “Ethical choices, both minor and major, confront us every day in the provision of health care for persons with diverse values living in a pluralistic and multicultural society. In the face of such diversity, where can we find moral action guides when there is confusion or conflict about what ought to be done?”
Additionally, the Gita Principles are universally operative in both macro or micro settings, for society at large and for the individual.
In the texts near the very end of Bhagavad Gita, after Krishna has fully instructed Arjuna he leaves the choice of what action to take fully up to Arjuna.
O son of Pṛthā, O conqueror of wealth, have you heard this with an attentive mind? And are your ignorance and illusions now dispelled?
Arjuna said: My dear Kṛṣṇa, O infallible one, my illusion is now gone. I have regained my memory by Your mercy. I am now firm and free from doubt and am prepared to act according to Your instructions.
So, it turns out that the Temple President did a good job by directing our young brahmacari to read the Bhagavad Gita. After all, choices about the Covid-19 vaccination are ultimately up to you.