Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

Status of human life in/and foetus in Hindu, Christian and Islamic scriptures Jayapaul Azariah

Department of Zoology, Univ. Madras, Guindy Campus, Chennai 600 025

1. Introduction

It has been pointed out that the word 'life' is difficult to define (Azariah 1995) and Leavitt (1995) remarked that it is important to address this question as it" is certainly central to bioethics: "The ethics of life or it is the love of life" (Macer, 1994). The approach to this question could be scientific and spiritual/scriptural. In this article, the status of life in human embryo is considered from the view of ancient scriptures.

One egg-one sperm scenario: The human egg and the sperm do not resemble a human being in any discernible form. The egg and the sperm represent a product of a human being - a single human cell. Procreation of human beings is done through internal fertilization of an egg with a sperm. One egg can be fertilized by only one sperm. There are no polyandry and polygamous scenarios. Neither the fusion of two eggs (from two different individuals) nor the fusion of two sperms can produce a human embryo. The fusion results in fetal life. Life begins at the time of syngamy/conception/zygote.

No half life: In the formation of a new human being, the sperm and the egg have n number of chromosomes while the father and mother have 2n chromosomes. Although each parent contributes half the number (n) of chromosomes, the egg and the sperm which have undergone a reduction division contain "full life". It will be unrealistic to say since 2n (full complement) chromosomes has become half the number of chromosomes in gametes, the life in a gamete is also half is not valid because life is an entity and cannot be divided because of reduction division in chromosomes. Each gamete contains full life i.e. 2n life just as their parents. There is no 'n life" i.e. half life situation. Secondly, even though the father and mother differ in their genotype and phenotype the life they possess is the same. But there is no scientific method to prove that father and mother have same life. But since father and mother have the same life, fusion is possible and rejection is impossible. Thirdly, two lives fuse to form one life i.e. 1 + 1 ø 1. The logic of the statement is that there is no sex difference with respect to life and life is one continuum. Probably there is also no difference between two human lives! All human life is the same. Meiotic division does not divide human life into half but only the chromosome number is reduced. To construe that `half of human life is derived from the egg and the other from the sperm ` is misleading. Life cannot be divided. There is no half life. Both life and truth are an indivisible ONE. It agrees with the Biblical doctrine that "The two shall become ONE." - a statement true at the very begin of human life and in marriage (Gen. 2: 24, Mt. 19: 5; Mk. 10: 7; 1 Cor. 6: 16; Eph. 5:31).

2. Fractured human existence

The life history of human beings can be divided into two major parts. One part is spent in the womb of the mother and the other as extra uterine existence. The intra uterine-occupant-human being is called the fetus and the extra uterine occupant is nurtured as a child to adult on earth. This is similar to plankton (the floating wandering organisms in the surface water of the sea). A holoplankton (complete) is one whose entire life cycle, both adult and larval phase, is spent in planktonic phase. A meroplankton (partial) spends its larval life in planktonic phase and the adult life as a seabottom dweller. The larvae do not resemble the adult in any respect. Human beings are mero-humans since human existence is in two major phases. In viewing human life holistically, it is seen that human life is fragmented into many fragments. Human beings spend their life in three major ecosystems: (I) intra uterine - (a) Fertilized egg, zygote (b) embryo, fetus (Prenatal ) (ii) Postnatal - Epi-terrestrial baby, child, young adult and adult (III). and intra terrestrial (after death in the womb of the earth). It is all one continuum (Kischer 1995).

The intra uterine residency is an "once-through occupancy". Such a specialized intra human - specialized - ecosystem cannot be stimulated under laboratory conditions. What has not been revealed in science, technology cannot actualize it. As far as today's scientific knowledge goes, it is certain that various laboratory experiments that have been carried on adult persons cannot be performed on the fetus. Recent reviews indicate that all behavioral aspects in fetal teratology of human beings (Pollard, 1996) and animals (Leonard, 1983) are post partum. There is no definite scientific study to establish the personhood status of a fetus from the view point of behavioral teratology. Hence, the only alternate source is to search the scriptures - Hindu, Christian and Islamic.

3. Pristine qualities of fetus

A perusal of data obtained in medical examination of fetuses reveal that there is generally a reduction in the number of oocytes between fetal life and adult life as well as in the number of times cell division can occur in a fetus and in an adult. These divisions does not include the replacement of body mass change. The total number of cells in human body and their sizes are fixed even though the human body calls divide about 47 times to reach the fixed number of body cells. Secondly, a surgical scar can be seen in an adult after an operation. But in a fetus such scars are either not seen when born or rare. It may be noted that in amniocentesis "scar-like" markings may be seen on embryos in later stages of development. Moreover the "medical properties" of fetus decreases in its adult stage. Pristine qualities of life decreases from prenatal-fetal life to postnatal adult life.


Indices Fetus Adult Old age


1. Cell division 40 7 0

2. Scar formation Nil/rare Yes Yes

3. Number of oocyte 5,000,000 2,50,000 1000

4. Medical properties Excellent Poor Nil


(Source: BBC World television, 1994-95)

4. Status of life and fetus in Vedic Culture

The Vedic culture date backs to about 3000 years BC. During this cultural period there were Pancha Maha Pathakas (five cardinal sins). They are: Stree Hatya (Killing of women) (2) Go Hatya (Killing of Cow) (3) Bhruna Hatya (killing of fetus) (4) Brama Hatya (Killing of a Brahmin) Shishu Hatya (Killing of a baby). Bhruna (Sanskrit = fetus) Hatya = kill is a mahapapam (Maha = great, papam = sin). Out of the five sins, four relate to human life - fetus (Bhruna), baby (Shishu), Woman (Stree) and Brahma (all those men and women, irrespective of caste/color/creed, who have adopted the Brahmanical way of life by choice) Note: during Vedic period one is not a Brahmin by birth but any one who has adopted that type of life.

If we take the French Medical Associations version of human embryo "as an object whom one can have at one's disposal and which may be subjected to manipulations" (Beaufils 1995) then fetus is not a person. If we consider that fetus has no adult human quality then the fetus is not a person. But the Vedic culture's recognition of Bhrunahataya as a cardinal sin emphasizes the point that fetus is a person with awareness. In their view, fetus is a person just like a baby (Shishu), woman and adults. They have equated fetal life with adult life.

5. Hindu - Mahabaratham

In the famous epic of Mahabaratham, Krishna tells Subhathra, his sister, who is pregnant with a child (Abhimanyu), how to break into the military formation of CHAKRAVYHA. Unfortunately Krishna did not complete the story and stops in the middle, without telling how to get out of it, once the formation is broken. At the age of 16 or so Abhimanyu got into CHAKRAVYHA to brake the formation but did not know how to come out it. Being unsuccessful in his attempt to get out of it, he was killed.

This means that the child in the womb was able to listen to the story and apply and put that information into practice in real life situation after birth. The story is from a Hindu mythology: These religious stories can be accepted or rejected and may not be questioned. The following generalizations can be made:

(I) the fetus has the ability to listen to conversations originating outside of its milieu

(ii) the fetus has the ability to understand the essence of the conversation

(iii) It can learn and reason out

(iv) can retain it in postnatal life and put into practice.

6. Christian - Bible

Jesus told Nicodemus "I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again. Nicodemus asked "How can a man be born when he is old?". Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born" (John 3:3-4, New International Version Bible, NIV). The conversation indicates that the intra uterine occupancy of human person is an one-time-event. Similarly the human's journey on earth, either above the earth or below - in the case of burial of a dead body or merged with the earthen elements, in case of the cremation of a dead body, is also one-time-event.

Fetal Learning: The word learning is used for want of a better word. In educational pedagogy learning is a desired change in the right direction. In the case of fetus it is not used in the sense of education. The pristine quality of learning is indicated in the fetal life of John the Baptist. His learning in fetal stage is an example of an highest order. The conversation between Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist reveals that the intra uterine occupant - the fetus (John) is a person since the fetus (John at the fetal age of 6 months, Lk. 1:26,36, NIV) can understand and relate and express emotion by physical expression. All these are different aspects of learning. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit... (Lk. 1: 41). It is Elizabeth who understood that Mary is going to be the mother of Messiah. Hence she was overjoyed that the mother of Jesus should visit her. The fetus in her womb realized her reasoning, thinking, factual analysis and comprehension. This is affirmed by the personal testimony of Elizabeth who testified "As soon as the sound of your greetings reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy" (Lk. 1: 44). Joy is the resultant expression of emotion of integrating and understanding the situation/event in one's mind. Moreover, such understanding is immediate: " As soon as... "

Secondly, the fetus had awareness of both internal and external environment and situation. He was able to analyze the content of the conversion, understand the meaning and respond to it. Mary's response was in poetry. It seems that language and the style is no barrier to fetal understanding. It must be borne in mind that Luke is a medical doctor and this event stands up to his medical reasoning and has the stamp of authenticity of the medical profession.

Such a fetal learning is long lasting. After 30 years (Lk. 3:23), John the Baptist, recognized Jesus, even though the latter was an ordinary man with no public significance. So John testified "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mat. 3: 11). He plainly told Jesus that he is not worthy to give baptism to him (V. 14). But within a few months he entertained doubt. John verified the fact of Jesus Christ as the Messiah ( Are you the one who was to come . . . ) at a later date (11:2b). John was in doubt, probably about the identity of the Messiah ( . . . or should we expect someone else?). He was able to put his fetal experience on judgment. The doubt in his mind may be due to the fact that while he was in prison (11:2) Jesus did nothing to release him from prison and the Messianic work in terms of Judgment and deliverance, has not yet been accomplished. If Jesus is Messiah then he must be able to deliver. But John needed to be reminded of the works of Jesus (Mat.11: 4-6) as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophet (Is.29:18; 35:5; 61:1). These personal glimpses of both Elizabeth and John tell us that the fetus-person can relate what he/she hears, through the mother's ears, to real life situation during later years as an adult. But one's personal achievement through education, training and experience may alter or confirm such fetal understanding and judgment.

Marks of fetal human being: It has been suggested that in human personhood it is possible to recognize five aspects namely physical, mental, moral, emotional and spiritual (Azariah, 1995 a, b). In the fetal life of John the Baptist, he has a physical life, mental life (he was able to relate and intelligently integrate) moral (blameless and his moral reasoning, ability to communicate clearly and unambiguously his decision, attitude to the conversation was right) emotional (expression of joy) and spiritual (he was able to internalize the spiritual significance of the conversation). Biblical record agrees with the definition of personhood by Macer (1990) who defined " A person is generally referred to as someone who is rational, capable of free choices, and is a coherent, continuing and autonomous center of sensations, experience, emotions, volitions and actions, these are what may be called the characters of a person." The present analysis agrees with the conclusions of Jones (1994): " There is full recognition that the beginnings of adult human life are found in the unborn, and that there is continuity between life before and life after birth. Fetuses are recognized, therefore, as an essential part in the continuum that makes up the prenatal and postnatal facets of human lives". The truth is that the human embryo is selectively, distinctly and specifically human from the very first moment of fertilization and during human development features (Kischer 1995).

7. Islamic- Koran

Islam is the youngest of worlds' monotheistic religions (6 A. D.). In Islamic culture procreation is a blessing from God (Hassan, 1995). But in the pre-Islamic Arabia, the practice of burying female children alive was prevalent. Qur'anic verses prohibit the killing of children. "... do not kill your children for fear of poverty for it is We who shall provide sustenance for you as well as for them " (Surah 6: Al An'am:151). Muslim jurists both allow and prohibit abortion. To Maliki School and Ja'fari School totally forbid abortion. However, Islamic medieval jurists and also Hanafi School, Shafi'i School and Hanbali School, permitted abortion within four months of pregnancy before the ensoulment of the fetus (Macer, 1990, Hassan, 1995).

8. Conclusions

Human life is one single continuum but lived in two different phases: one in the womb of the mother and the other as extra uterine occupancy. Although the egg and sperm under go reduction division in the number of chromosomes of the parent, the life continues to be full. There is no half life. The fusion of two individual-full-life does not result in two lives in one body but one life in one body.

In the Vedic culture, killing the fetus is considered as a great sin. It does not permit a person to hold the view that fetus in not a human being since fetal killing is equated with the killing of infants, woman and adults. The fetus has extraordinary qualities in wound healing without scar production and in having the maximum number of cell division. The life of fetus is pristine.

Both Hindu and Christian scriptures provide some insight into fetal behavior. Fetus has remarkable ability for instant comprehension, expression of emotions and understanding which is of a highest order. Attributes of personhood such as physical, mental, moral, emotion and spiritual aspects are common to both fetus and adult human beings. On this basis fetus is considered as a person.


I thank Dr. Chitrasena Bhat, Professor, Department of Computer Science and Electronics, S.J. College of Engineering, Mysore 670 006 for the delightful discussion on Hindu Scriptures and culture.

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