Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Impossible Gifts: Bodies, Buddhism and Bioethics in Contemporary Sri Lanka

Article excerpt

In his 1986 Malinowski lecture, Jonathan Parry (1986) made some insightful observations regarding Mauss's seminal account of the gift in human society. The first of these was Parry's suggestion of an intellectual archaeology in which Mauss's inspiration for the 'spirit of the gift' is linked explicitly to South Asian sources (1986: 486). The second was his attempt to unearth an evolutionary model, implicit in Mauss, which contrasts giving in tribal religions with giving in world religions and developed economies. In the latter, the idea of pure, unreciprocated, and unreciprocatable gifts is consonant with salvation strategies in which the giver benefits in terms of 'unseen fruits' (1986: 462). These ideas were subsequently carried further forward in Laidlaw's reevaluation of the significance of the 'free gift'; this work challenges the proposition that acts which do not appear to extend social relations are of no interest to anthropologists (Laidlaw 2000). These observations have provided important refinements in attempts to theorize the wide-ranging objects, connections, and intentions which are to be found under the umbrella of 'the gift'. This article has two main aims. First, I wish to reinforce the observations made by Parry and Laidlaw regarding the importance of South Asian conceptions of giving in our attempts to understand Mauss's ambitious, inspiring, but ultimately partial theorizations of the place of the 'gift' in human society. My focus here are the beliefs and practices of Theravada Buddhists in Sri Lanka. Second, and more importantly, I wish to extend these insights to the growing repertoire of organs and tissues that originate in one human body but may at some point find themselves functioning in another. (1) As bodies become ever more fungible, gifts are possible which, in Maussian terms, are not merely metaphorical parts of oneself but elide physical partibility with social connection in new and challenging ways. In Buddhism, parts or substances of the body which are extracted for the purpose of donation constitute a very distinctive element in the ideology of giving and the other-worldly ends to which this giving is orientated. However, my purpose in this is not merely to describe a highly distinctive set of beliefs and values regarding organ and tissue donation, but to locate these within contemporary discourses about justification, constraint, and possibility in transactions involving human body parts: in other words, within the field of scholarship which is now known as bioethics.

The exploration of local moral worlds of organ and tissue donation which I describe here came about during research carried out into the reception of new reproductive and genetic technologies among doctors, clinicians, and others involved in regulation and policy-making in Sri Lanka. An issue that I was keen to unravel, along with my respondents, concerned the ways in which new possibilities for the donation of gametes and embryos might be made sense of in Sri Lankan society, and, furthermore, the conflicts that arise between Sinhala Buddhist readings of these transactions and those of other ethnic and religious groupings, notably Tamil Hindus and Muslims. With the acquisition of the capacity to retrieve gametes, create embryos in vitro, and store these for subsequent use, other types of transfer become possible. Sperm, eggs, and embryos all become potential objects for inter-corporeal transfers which go beyond the assistance of a married heterosexual couple using their own genetic material. The attempts to make sense of these novel transactions and the relational configurations they make possible reveals a complex interplay between ideas of intention, biogenetic substance, and the nature of kinship. Parallels with other traditions of organ and tissue donation are evident but there are also some highly distinctive local inflections; stepping into a biogenetic future rich in technological possibility also involves an engagement with the past. …

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