In part three of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks one of the pertinent ethical problems exemplified through events in the book is the problem of ownership and commercialization of biological material. Henrietta’s family comes to find out that their mother’s/wife’s/sister’s cells are being sold for $25 a vial and thus were making a very large profit for those selling them. However, the Lacks’ had not seen any form of compensation from the profits of Henrietta’s cells and struggled to even afford medical insurance to seek care for themselves. In addition to this, Skloot explains the story of the Mo cell line in which John Moore’s spleen cells were taken by his doctor and sold to biomedical companies, without his consent, to result in an industry worth $3.5 billion. Moore sued his doctor for lack of informed consent and stealing his cells, but ultimately the case was dismissed with the Supreme Court of California declaring that once your tissues are out of your body, they are not yours. In addition, they were now deemed an “inventive effort” due to the fact that Moore’s doctor had “transformed” them through his research.
In both of these examples, there is a very blatant and clear violation of Kantian autonomy principles which state that the demands of treating people as autonomous will dictate the extent to which you can treat people as means. The doctors have been placed in a position of power over patients and research subjects, and have taken advantage of their privilege to exploit the people they are supposed to be helping and instead used their cells for financial gain. Both Henrietta and John did not have the power to determine what happened with their cells, but instead had to yield the doctors decisions who were really supposed to be caregivers to their patients, not business people. They were used as means and not ends in and of themselves, and their stories serve to highlight the inherent inequalities that arise between people’s statuses as either patient or physician.This leads me to question, can a doctor ever be entirely invested in seeking to help their patients in the most beneficial way if they also have coinciding monetary, research, or career incentives to treat, cure, or operate in a certain way?