In “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks”, Skoot explores the struggles that Henrietta had during her treatment at Johns Hopkins hospital and exposed the racial segregation and lack of ethical guidelines underlying in the medical field which allowed Henrietta’s cells to be collected without her consent. The story discusses several ethical dilemma’s including the mistreatment of the colored and the controversy surrounding the idea of “benevolent conception”, or the idea that it was morally permissible to withhold essential information about the patient’s condition from patients (especially colored), based on the justification that information would only confuse patients and that medical information was only useful to doctors who had professional knowledge.
It is obvious that through modern eyes, the act of extracting Henrietta’s cells without her consent is morally unjust, as it violates the idea of an informed consent, or the idea that it is essential for patients to be fully aware of the medical procedures that are being carried out as every patient’s autonomy is intrinsically valuable.
However, Skoot’s portrayal of Gey’s immoral practices on Henrietta should not be judged based on presentism, but rather by considering how hard one tried to act the best morally considering the different moral and social norms during the early 1930s was different from today. In a society in which racial segregation and mistreatment of the blacks were common, the Johns Hopkins institution’s mere acts of attempting to cure black patients, including Henrietta, is surely a moral improvement compared to how blacks were treated before.
The particular discussion about presentism and the changing moral norms made me question the Kantian notion of an unchanging fundamental moral principle and lead me to believe that morality is relative to the people who discuss it and is constantly changing.
Also, the idea of “benevolent conception” may be morally justified as a form of paternalism intended to protect the patients during that time, given that many of the black population were illiterate and unfamiliar with medical practices, they could be considered as less autonomous and rational compared to a modern person who could easily acquire knowledge about medical practices and assess the implications that it might have on one’s health, and were better off with other professionals deciding what is best for them.
However, considering that Henrietta would have rejected the radiation treatment if she knew that she would become infertile, or may have given consent to Gey collecting her cell knowing that it would help millions of people, Gey’s act may lean more towards being selfish and goal-oriented rather than being paternalistic and in care for the patient even when taking the racist social norms into account. Nonetheless, I am not confident with my moral evaluation of Gey’s character, as I believe that further inquiries about the particular social norms and contextual information is necessary. Perhaps, we should question whether moral evaluation of character in the past is fair or valid at all, given the uncertainty and the limits we face in fully understanding how events in the past occurred.