Rebecca Skloot’s presentation, centered largely around her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, focused primarily on the ethics of modern scientific progress. Ms. Skloot wrote her book about Henrietta Lacks. Ms. Lacks’ cells were taken without permission and were then grown in a laboratory and sold. Her genes, though she did not know it at the time, helped science unlock gene mapping and some medical breakthroughs.
The ethics of the matter, however, are clearly quite murky. When understood from different perspectives, one can come to quite different conclusions regarding the ethical questions The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks highlights. The primary concern of the family, and the mistreated patient, was their lack of awareness and consent. Most certainly, from Ms. Lacks perspective, she was undoubtedly wronged – as our social norms and rule of law both clearly state that informed consent are prerequisites for this kind of an ordeal. From a virtue and perhaps a deontological perspective, the scientists acted unethically. From a utilitarian point of view, however, one may be tempted to weigh the tremendous good the scientists did through the cultivation and study of her cells, against the personal discomfort felt by a few. In weighing these results, one can conclude that the scientists, on a larger scale, made an ethical decision in taking what they needed, as taking her cells did not cause any direct harm to Ms. Lacks. Thus, inevitably, this situation leads us to a larger question. To what extent do we value progress and innovation over the individual and his or her feelings? So far as I can tell, the world we enjoy today was built upon the backs of individuals and while that may not always be the most enjoyable prospect, I believe the civilized world is worth the progress it took to get here. While I can empathize with Ms. Lacks’ feeling that she was taken advantage of, I would hope that I might still look to the good my minor discomfort might have done.
The idea of cultivating cells is interesting, but the really cool stuff is the Human Genome Project, started in 1990 and finished in 2003. The goal was to map the sequence of chemical base pairs which make up DNA and map the roughly 20,000 to 25,000 genes of the human genome. The scientific, medical and intellectual possibilities are close to endless with this project. The Human Genome is quite literally the human blueprint! And it’s research was done internationally, building cooperation and positive interactions between different people with different values and cultures. This is an example of how the progress in science can truly affect the world system and all its people.