Maximizing Utility or Maximizing Profit

The second part of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, traces the different paths taken by HeLa and Henrietta Lacks. The immortal cells, called “HeLa”, become an essential tool for scientific research in countless fields. Initially, the cells are distributed freely by Dr. Gey, the scientist who harvested the sample. But demand grows quickly and the cells are soon the center of an entirely new area of scientific study, cell culture. The cells and the industry quickly become profitable. HeLa cells eventually become “general scientific property” (Skloot 104). While HeLa and scientific research are booming, Henrietta’s family struggles in difficult living situations, lacking money, education or most importantly, healthcare. This shows the completed division between Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman from Turner’s Station, into HeLa, cells only known for their furious division and accompanying range of discoveries.

Pomerat’s declaration that HeLa cells belong to the entire scientific community represents a very utilitarian view of research. From the utilitarian perspective, the free distribution of these cells results in huge benefits at relatively low cost. At this point, these cells are largely viewed as an object–a cargo that should be shipped carefully, a substrate that can be endlessly poked and prodded. Because of the biomedical success of HeLa cells, they contributed to the overall good of society. This was likely the thought process followed by Gey and other researchers who were instrumental in HeLa’s spread. This utilitarian approach follows the methods of collaboration and sharing of new discoveries common in the sciences.

However, the utilitarian theory quickly breaks down upon inspection of Henrietta’s children and family following her death. The argument for universal healthcare can also be made using the ideas of maximizing utility. If the entire population has access to the same service meant to maintain a basic quality of life, then the quality of life of the population should improve, a positive outcome from a utilitarian perspective. The contradiction comes when looking at the Lacks’ family decades after HeLa flourished. Much of the family is plagued by serious health conditions, yet none of them have reliable access to healthcare. This begs the question of the universality of a theory. Would utilitarians allow for this type of double standard? On one hand, the distribution of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her consent can be brushed off as being overwhelmingly beneficial for society. But these utilitarian principles not apply when trying to maximize the good of the very people involved (indirectly) in remarkable scientific breakthroughs. Are there ulterior motives in following some a moral theory in some realms but not others, potentially for financial or professional gain? This represents the issue that arises when trying to apply abstract moral theories directly to concrete applications–clear stances and principles appear to soften or even contradict.

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