Author Archives: Jess Ferguson

Dr. Rokita

During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people quarantined, utilizing technology and social media more than ever. With so much more free time, shaming people on social media became easier, and the massive amounts of boredom made it more appealing. In my opinion, quarantine created a sort of pressure cooker of emotions. People wanted something to blame their isolation on, and with such increased use of social media, they were able to find countless different causes via technology. In Max’s article, “The Public Shaming Pandemic,” he touches on how public shaming on the Echo Dnia Website impacted a renowned gynecologist, Dr. Rokita. Before testing positive, Dr. Rokita carried on with his daily life, just like everyone else would have. Though I personally believe that he should have quarantined in the thirty hours between the initial tests and receiving the results, I can honestly understand why he didn’t. There were no known cases of COVID-19 in Poland at this time, so I assume he felt safe enough to partake in seemingly normal tasks. With such a new and novel pandemic, there were no set norms about living during a pandemic, so he just relied on old habits. After his test results were returned to him, he voluntarily quarantined in the hospital, ensuring that he did not put anyone in his family at risk. After his results, he did what he was supposed to do, but that was not enough to stop the public shaming. The hateful comments about his handling of COVID-19 eventually caused Dr. Rokita to commit suicide. If he had not committed suicide, would people have even given him a chance to learn from his mistakes? Or would he forever just be known as patient zero? Would people ever be able to focus on his professional and personal achievements, or would they always blame him for bringing COVID-19 to Poland? With this ending, it is impossible for people to justify public shaming as a way of teaching others what is right and wrong. People shamed him because they could, not because they wanted him to be a more virtuous person. Though the public shaming of Dr. Rokita did bring the community together, it also isolated him and his family, removing them from the community when they were the most fragile. In a time that people desperately needed to rely on others for support, public shaming further divided them, clearly doing more harm than good. This example shows the fragile balance between teaching and chastising, which is nearly impossible to maintain with peoples’ emotions running so high.

Airports and Aristotle

I recently traveled back home to Omaha, Nebraska, and was shocked at the way that the coronavirus was handled at the airport. When I approached the TSA agent and showed her my ID, she told me that I was required to take off my mask to ensure a “correct identification”. I grudgingly took off my surgical mask and struggled to get it back on before being shuffled to the bag check. I seemed to be the only one that was sanitizing my things after they had touched the security conveyor belts and the SkyRail was completely packed after security. With this experience in mind, Hessler’s documentation about the ways that China handled the coronavirus was shocking. On the college campus that Hessler taught at, there were gates at every entrance that were equipped with face scanners. Both he and the students did not have to take their masks off to use this technology to get access to campus. There were robots that roamed around campus, able to do certain tasks that reduced the amount of physical interaction between students and staff. China’s efficient and effective use of technology during this pandemic was incredible to me. Not only does it show massive technological advancement, but it also highlights China’s more collective approach to coronavirus. Instead of having certain individuals risking their health to deliver packages to students, Chinese scientists came together to find modern solutions to this new and common problem. They viewed the coronavirus as a communal project, emphasizing that it was a threat to the overall society, not just a personal one. Even if Americans would have treated the virus as more of a communal project, would the country have the infrastructure necessary to integrate newer technologies like these? 

China’s approach to communal freedoms and responsibility are very similar to Aristotle’s teachings. He argued that habits are rooted in our surrounding community, so having a well-functioning society leads to a more virtuous individual. Taking temperatures and sharing the results on chat platforms was the norm and allowed people to hold their peers accountable. Individuals were willing to participate in this system, even though it could be considered to be a minor time inconvenience. Contract tracers sacrificed their own sleep for the health of their community. Families had their own homes sealed by community officials but did not openly complain. With this value placed on life over freedom, China was able to combat the coronavirus in a more coordinated way that saved many lives. Even between the Omaha and Atlanta airport, the coronavirus was handled differently. In Atlanta, there were stickers on the ground reminding people to social distance. In Omaha, though, most people were wearing masks, but still standing incredibly close together. If American airports cannot even coordinate their coronavirus standards, I do not think that the entire country could come together like China did. Even so, it was inspiring to read about how well China was able to handle the coronavirus, and I hope that America will somehow find a way to follow suit.

Vaccine Distribution and Potential Prioritization

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a multitude of ethical issues about resource scarcity have arisen. Different questions about the fair distribution of tests, personal protective equipment, and life-saving medical technology seem to come about every day. As the pandemic has evolved, the necessity for a vaccine has become more obvious, as well. Though there seems to be a race to discover the vaccine, the question of how to do so in a fair and just manner seems to only be in the back of a few minds. Though the vaccine itself will need to be allocated, the glass vials, temperature-controlled storage units, and other basic supplies that are needed to create it will be just as crucial. With so many moving parts, America’s lack of infrastructure could potentially botch the vaccine’s rollout. If a vaccine is found and able to be widely produced, fair distribution of it must be at the forefront of the conversation. According to the equal opportunity approach, everyone should be entitled to the necessary resources that will allow them to achieve “normal functioning” and equally compete for opportunities in society. In an ideal world, I believe that viewing the vaccine as a part of the right to healthcare would ensure that citizens are able to reach this baseline of normal functioning. Realistically, though, the issue of resource scarcity far outweighs the issue of the right to equal opportunities and access to healthcare.

Guaranteeing absolute equality is not economically feasible, so finding ways to prioritize who should get the vaccine first is critical. During the H1N1 pandemic, government organizations were able to efficiently and effectively distribute the vaccine to the highest priority group, showing that prioritizing has been successful in the past. Because healthcare professionals are risking their wellbeing to help others, getting first priority of the vaccine could help them get closer to achieving normal functioning. The vaccine would provide them with at least a small amount of protection and reduce the severity of symptoms if they were to get COVID-19. This would give the healthcare professionals a better chance of recovery, allowing them to equally compete for opportunities more quickly. Apart from healthcare professionals, I believe that we must give second priority to individuals with pre-existing conditions. Getting the vaccine would give them at least some protection, easing their anxieties and allowing them to equally participate in society again. It is a fact that certain people will be treated differently during vaccine distribution, but it is up to us to ensure that it is in the most fair way possible. 

Though prioritizing seems to be a good way to provide some baseline amount of equal distribution of the vaccine, would the lack of infrastructure stop this process before it even begins? Would having a general, national distribution of the vaccine be more realistic due to the weak infrastructure, or would that completely eliminate the fairness of the vaccine distribution?

The Lacks Family

Though the HeLa Factory had good intentions to stop polio, the development of an industrial scale cell culturing facility showed how close the relationship between business and medicine truly is. The HeLa cells became scientific property, allowing Henrietta Lacks’s name to be erased with each new vial of the cell culture. After the polio testing, HeLa cells were used to study genetics, nuclear physics, cosmetics, and kick-started the cell-culture industry. What started out as one woman’s tumor cells became a money-making machine. The question of her consent was quickly forgotten, instead replaced by the question of how many HeLa cells could be grown and sold. 

The research industry was thriving off of a nonconsensual donation of cells and had no intention of thanking the Lacks family for their mother’s contribution to science. While the HeLa factory was booming, Henrietta’s children were being abused and neglected by Ethel, their caretaker. Lawrence, the oldest son, was so short on money that he lied about his age to get a job. Though this helped him gain employment, it also made him eligible for the draft, leading him to be unfairly sent to war at a young age. During this time, Dr. Gey had an intense desire to keep Henrietta’s name private, so her children did not even know that their mothers’ cells were at the forefront of modern research. Was this stance actually to protect the family’s privacy, or was it yet another way that Dr. Gey found to make the HeLa cells seem less human? Was this his way of trying to make up for the lack of Henrietta’s complete consent while she was alive? It is quite clear that Henrietta was never given full information about her surgery and medical care. She did not know that the surgery would render her unable to have children and claimed that she would not have followed through with the treatment if she had known. After her death, though, doctors went to extreme lengths to obtain her husband’s consent for an autopsy. They valued Henrietta’s life only after it ended, just like Dr. Gey valued her right to privacy only after it was no longer needed. Researchers thought that understanding the exact cause of death and potentially getting a few more cell samples was more important than preserving her body in the way that her husband wanted to. 

With all of the injustices that surrounded both Henrietta and her family, it is almost challenging to focus on the scientific advancements of the HeLa cells. The lack of any sort of financial compensation left the Lacks family unable to purchase health insurance, blocking them from reaching their normal functioning. Though some compensation would have been appreciated, is there really anything that could have actually remedied this situation for the Lacks family? Her children lost their mother, her husband lost his wife, and her community lost a dear friend. With all of the pain that surrounded both her cancer and death, would understanding that Henrietta’s cells were helping others have made it any easier on the Lacks family?

The Need for a Minimum Amount of Healthcare

The debate about the best ways to make healthcare both accessible and fair impacts our modern political, legislative, and judicial systems constantly. The Affordable Care Act has been a political hot topic for years now, forcing the question of who is entitled to what type of healthcare to be regularly brought up. In an effort to answer this, Norman Daniels proposes the idea that individuals do have a right to healthcare, which he justifies using John Rawls’ argument of the right to “fair equality of opportunity”. Rawls’ theory states everyone is entitled to have an equal chance to obtain the “basic goods” of society, and Daniels argues that healthcare must be considered one of these. Without strong and easily accessible healthcare systems, individuals are not able to achieve their normal functioning, blocking them from using societal resources to become their healthiest selves. 

Though Daniels does argue that healthcare is a moral right, he also highlights various problems that could arise during distribution. With technology constantly changing and becoming more expensive, guaranteeing absolute equality in healthcare access is simply not economically feasible. The innovative technology must be utilized by some, though, and it is hard to decide who should and should not use it. Daniels does state that individuals with diseases or disabilities that seriously impair their opportunities should be given priority, which could be seen as a small solution. Justifying unequal access to treatments and technologies is still challenging, though, but requiring a right to a minimum amount of healthcare could help remedy this issue. I argue that all individuals should be entitled to a yearly physical, some preventative treatments, and medical testing. This would cover basic healthcare needs, allowing people to better function and improve their personal welfare. A minimum amount of healthcare would help individuals not constantly stress about how they are going to pay for their treatments or debate if going to the hospital is worth the astronomical cost. Without the stress of making payments, individuals’ mental health would improve as well, allowing them to further flourish. If there were clear guidelines created about what constitutes the minimum amount of healthcare, there would be no need for more debates and legal battles about the topic. Politicians and lawmakers could focus their energy on other issues, leading to an overall improved society.

Personal Reflections on Goldman’s Arguments

Whenever I ask a question, my least favorite response is always “it depends”. I am constantly searching for the correct answer to each problem, and do not enjoy being told that, in some situations, there isn’t one. In regards to the debate of paternalism versus autonomy, the answer is quite often “it depends”. It is not possible to say that every use of medical paternalism is completely unjustified, because each situation, person, age group, motivation, and medical condition is different. Alan Goldman’s work focuses on how paternalism factors into these separate situations, showing just how complex the topic is. Goldman breaks his argument against paternalism into two sections: empirical and moral. In the empirical section, he brings up the point that it is impossible for physicians to know if patients will actually be negatively affected if they are fully informed. Physicians will not always properly calculate risk-benefit, so they should not have the power to decide for the patient, thus refuting the argument for paternalism. With this argument, though, the use of paternalism depends on the physician’s ability to understand the patient and their possible reactions. If there is a physician that is able to perfectly calculate the risk-benefit, and knows that the patient will be happier if they are kept in the dark, then paternalism would be justified. 

When focusing on the moral argument, Goldman stresses the important role that personal values play in paternalism. The fundamental outline of paternalism is based on the idea that health and prolonged life take full priority over patients’ personal preferences. Many would argue that modern medicine’s goal is to prolong life, so physicians are simply doing their jobs by doing everything to keep their patients alive. Some patients value making their own decisions more than the length of their life, though. If a physician decides to withhold medical information or move forward with treatment, the patients that value self-determination will not have an improved quality of life. Goldman concludes his moral argument by saying that these values are present because they are upheld by rational beings that deserve to make personal decisions. Taking away a person’s ability to choose can threaten their individuality. In these specific instances, paternalism does seem to be morally wrong. In individuals that do value health and long life over decision making, a physician interfering with the patients’ liberty would be valid. Paternalism is therefore an issue that depends on individual values and situations. 

Though Goldman primarily argues against it, he does acknowledge that paternalism can sometimes lead to good. There is no perfect example of an instance where paternalism should overrule autonomy, so the answer must be: “it depends”.