Saving patients and selling cells.

In the third chapter of the book “The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” Skloot explores the events that occur in the medical field regarding HeLa cells advancement, as well as the conflicts that arise due to the researchers and journalists that attempt to profit off from Henrietta Lack’s cells without having any respect for Henrietta Lacks as a person or giving their family any rightful compensation.

The way in which doctors attempt to declare HeLa cells as their own species, or the way David Golde attempted to make profit off of John Moore, the patient, by using the cell he extracted from the patient without consent and patent it to generate billions of dollars all showcase the tendency of doctors to regard the cells of patients as a separate entity from the patient, and ignore the necessary consent needed in order to uphold the patient’s autonomy and right to his or her own cells.

Essentially, it could be argued that the doctor’s actions of prioritizing their personal profit over the patient’s welfare and wellbeing as well as their basic moral rights. The obvious assumption in this case is that the extraction of patient’s cells, or any other body part without their informed consent is inherently immoral.

However, if the patients were to be informed that the cells they possess have great potential benefit to the medical field, whether or not the patient is morally obligated to use the cells in order to contribute to the medical field and potentially save millions of lives.

This scenario could be compared to a situation in which a person sees another drowning person. Are they obligated to save their lives? Depending on the answer to this question, patients ought to have a moral obligation to use their cells in order to contribute to the medical field.

Lets then assume that the person decided to use his/her cells in order to generate a life saving vaccine or medicine. Then we would have to consider whether the wealth or money generated using the cell ought to be given to the patient. In a strictly Kantian perspective, since the cell has been originated from the person, it is intuitive that the person should be rewarded for the benefits that the cell created in society.

However, we need to consider whether an individual who only possesses the cell would be able to do the necessary research in order to develop such medicine. In a utilitarian perspective, in order to maximize the benefit that the cell has on people in the society, it would be most efficient that doctors, who have the necessary skills and knowledge that is needed to develop such medicine and be profited off from it, as in a free market economy, and due to the profit maximizing nature of human, the profit that returns to those specialized doctors is what would enable the development of the medical industry in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Saving patients and selling cells.

  1. Amelia Dimas

    June Yun’s blog post discusses the debate surrounding the ownership of biological materials such as the cell lines of Henrietta Lacks’ and John Moore’s cells. He highlights the argument that the physicians of both patients placed greater value on personal profit than on the well-being of the patient. June bases this argument on the inherent immorality of extracting a patient’s cells and profiting from them without informed consent. The question then becomes who has a right to the profits from the resulting cell cultures?

    June approached this from a utilitarian stance. June argues that as doctors are the ones providing the expertise and knowledge to develop the cultures which will ultimately benefit society, the profits should go back to researchers and physicians in order to incentivize and enable medical research. I believe that June’s argument has some validity, but I would question whether a utilitarian perspective truly supports this argument. It is true that the work of the researchers and physicians is vital to the development of life-saving drugs; however, because such emphasis is placed on compensating scientists (and pharmaceutical companies) for their work, the prices of drugs are driven up severely. This limits the availability of such drugs to those with lower income or those without insurance. For example, Henrietta’s children struggled to pay for surgeries, medicine, and other forms of healthcare despite their mother’s cells being vital in the development of modern healthcare. Even if life-saving drugs are developed by these scientists, is there a greater good that results (despite the potential exploitation and lack of compensation for patients) if accessibility to these drugs is limited due to their price?

  2. Jake Meyer

    In his analysis of Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, June Yun focuses on the issues of autonomy and consent regarding the financial development of a patient (in this case Henrietta) cells in the bio-research industry. June argues that the doctors in this case study ignored “necessary consent needed to patent and subsequently generate profit from a patient’s cells. Focusing on the issue of autonomous consent, June presents the scenario of a patient choosing whether or not to authorize the distribution of their potentially life-saving cells; and compares it to that same person choosing whether or not to save a drowning victim right in front of them. While I appreciate this intuitive comparison, I do believe that some externalities must be considered with this comparison. When saving a drowning person, you know the immediate effect and can account for any external repercussions. When compared to licensing your cells, June assumes that the patient is completely knowledgeable of any biological, scientific, or economic repercussions that could stem from this deeply moral personal choice. Therefore, I do not believe this comparison can logically be used here, although I appreciate the idea behind it. Finally, June compares the patient situation through a Kantian and Utilitarian lens. He argues that Kant would say that the patient should get all rewards for the benefit the cells create. However, I agree more with June’s Utilitarian perspective. He argues that since the doctors cultivated and developed the cells, the money should go to them, therefore allowing them to further research and develop and provide more overall benefit to society. While I agree with this, I believe that we must take into account the issue of compensation- even if the doctors gain monetary benefit in order to continue their good deeds, I believe the patient and his/her family is entitled to some sort of monetary cut for making the moral interpersonal decision to cultivate and extract their cells (if they even gave consent at all).


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