In an interview at Bucknell tonight, Rebecca Skloot discussed her book, entitled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Throughout her discussion, themes of race, science, and progress were brought up, along with the ethical dilemmas behind them. The book, which was published in 2010, focuses on Henrietta Lacks who, during her cancer treatment, had cells harvested from her body without consent. Her cells were cultured, grown, and sold, making them seem immortal, and contributed to scientific breakthroughs for polio, gene mapping, along with many other fields of study.

While her cells may have created many opportunities for study, Skloot’s interview focused on the life of the Lacks family, and the unethical way in which they were treated. One of the main ideas that was brought up time and time again in the interview were the ideas of consent and informing the patient. In the book, scientists came back to the Lacks family in the early 1970’s, and again took tissue samples without the consent of the family, and without informing the family regarding the cell’s purpose. This led to confusion and distrust within the Lacks family, as they had no idea what was happening when the doctors came to take away tissue samples.

What fascinated me about this story was how much it parallels to current ethical discussion in the business world today. For so long, both in the medical and business fields, society was focussed solely on the advancements they could accomplish in their respective fields. As time has moved forward,however, we have begun to see how this attitude can affect others, and the issues it can present down the line. In the medical field, this is shown by looking at how taking cells without consent can hurt the donor family, as seen through Rebecca Skloot’s interview. In the business field, this same idea is portrayed by how “sweat shop” factories can effect the individuals working in them. Initially, in both cases, the individual was overlooked for the sake of progress, but as a society, we are beginning to turn this view around. A further aspect of this is the necessity to provide sufficient information to the people you are working with in both the business and medical fields. Skloot pointed out in her interview how the result for the Lacks family could have been so much different if someone would have taken the time to explain to them what was happening. The same view applies to business, and leads me to as to what extent could the current Great Recession have been prevented if someone had truly taken the time to explain the loans given out to so many Americans.

It is only in recent years that people are beginning to inquire about the effects of their actions instead of only focussing on the progress they can make, and a major part of this thinking has resulting in the idea of informed consent. The idea of consent developed first, as we see how consent forms are used in almost every area of business and medicine today. The next step, however, will be equally important, with simple consent transitioning into fully “informed” consent.


5 responses »

  1. laf024 says:

    I like the way you paralleled Skloot’s argument with business ethics. I couldn’t attend the event but I completely agree that in al aspects of society, people are progressing for the sake of progress. Everyone is focused on getting ahead in their lives, careers, etc. We seem to forget that all actions have consequences. I also agree that there has been a recent realization that businesses and medical practitioners have been acting unethically, but the problem is changing society’s mindset. People aren’t going to stop unless progress is no longer important in society. This situation, like many, revolves around the societal “norm” of doing whatever you can do be on top. That needs to change before anything else will.

  2. wmw014 says:

    I also brought up a similar point in comparing bioethics with business ethics. One of the key points, which you mention in your post, about both of these fields is that it is essential that individuals have goals that do not only consist of advancement. With advancement being the only goal for individuals in each field for decades, ethics took a back seat. As a result of ethics taking a back seat, several values, such as the dissemination of information, have been excluded from these professions which has caused people to lose trust in these institutions. With that said and similar to what you say in your concluding paragraph, I think that the questions that people have surrounding both big business and medical practitioners are just starting to be answered.

  3. Jordi says:

    Do you think race and class affected the attitudes of the White doctors and scientists about informing before asking consent?

  4. Jordi says:

    Can you go to her website (Skloot) and see what other info is there that is interesting or relevant? I had asked people to “add an extra resource” to their reaction.

  5. Jordi says:

    We can imagine the development of informed consent as a practice as an example of stakeholder management in practice. The donor has a stake in the decisions.

    I am a lot less sanguine about how much progress we make however. You mention “sweatshops” as if they used to exist and then were driven away. Actually, they come and go.

    Or the Great Depression. One of the key laws after the Great Depression was the Glass-Steagall bill, which bankers at the time HATED, which cleft the banking sector into safer, insured, retail banking and riskier, un-insured (by FDIC) investment banking. A bill in the late 1990s overturned that which set the stage for the Great Recession.

    So, call me old, or over-read, or whatever, but I don’t see that much progress. more like small steps forward here and there, easily lost, that must be vigilantly guarded.

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