Author Archives: Leah Doubert

Deconstructive Criticism: The Inefficiency of Guilt Shaming

In his article, “The Public Shaming Pandemic,” T.D. Max makes the point that public shaming of individuals not behaving appropriately during the pandemic is both ethically wrong and an inefficient way to combat the spread of coronavirus. 

It can undoubtedly be frustrating for people who have lost loved ones or jobs due to the pandemic, or even those who have just given up any semblance of their “normal” lives in order to protect the safety of those around them, to witness other individuals behaving in a reckless manner that puts others in danger. It’s easy to understand why people obeying the COVID guidelines are quick to write an angry post on social media, attacking those who are not, but this form of public shaming often reaches dangerous extremes for those being attacked without causing any major improvements. 

The idea of shaming is not inherently unethical. The practice originated in the idea of educating those who have made mistakes so they can behave differently in the future. However, today’s shaming has taken a vastly different approach: the goal is typically to make people feel guilty for their actions. Instead of explaining to people why the actions they took were dangerous, the aim is essentially to destroy their reputations and ruin their lives. 

This type of shaming is in no way constructive: being targeted by millions on social media does not make people any more likely to follow the guidelines. If a person was already hesitant about wearing a mask, are some internet trolls telling them that they’re a terrible person really going to convince them otherwise? In most cases, the answer is no. 

The motives of this guilt-driven shaming are no secret. People understand that the embarrassment caused by being called out on a large social media platform can ruin the lives of those in question, and that this embarrassment doesn’t typically translate to a change in peoples’ actions or opinions on the issue. Continuing on the route of public shaming while understanding that it doesn’t accomplish any large-scale change is simply wasting time that we can’t afford to lose, with COVID cases in the US still reaching record-breaking numbers. 

If shaming isn’t an effective way to convince people to follow COVID guidelines, then what is? Perhaps people would respond better to policies such as fines for not complying with social distancing guidelines or mask mandates, or monetary incentives for those that do comply. Instead of taking social media to shame people into behaving safely, we must focus on how to contain the spread of the virus going forward instead of dwelling on people’s previous actions. 

COVID Containment Policies: The Tradeoff Between Life and Freedom

In his article, “How China Controlled the Coronavirus,” Peter Hessler details the precautions taken by China to slow the spread of the virus. He makes an interesting point concerning the idea that Chinese value “life over freedom,” while Americans’ priorities tend to lie elsewhere.  

In China, a nationwide lockdown was issued early on to contain the spread of the virus. Any person who tested positive, regardless of their symptoms, was required to quarantine for two weeks, separated even from their families. The issue of a nationwide lockdown, similar to the issue of mask mandates, has become a topic of controversy in the US, with many Americans unwilling to give up these personal freedoms to protect the health of the general public. It’s also safe to say that most Americans would not respond well to the thought of a COVID-positive child being separated from their family for two weeks to quarantine. not respond well to the thought of COVID-positive children being separated from their families for two weeks to quarantine. 

While Americans’ value of freedom is typically justified, it cannot be prioritized over the health and safety of others. Personal freedom should not be taken away, but an issue like public health affects everyone around you, making it a community problem. In cases like these, it’s important to prioritize the safety of a large group over the freedom of any one individual. 

It’s also important to remember that the policies that would be enacted to contain COVID wouldn’t be permanent. A lockdown would need to have an end-date on it, and it’s unrealistic to expect people to continue wearing masks for the rest of their lives. People aren’t being asked to surrender their freedom forever: as seen with China, it would only take a couple of months of diligently following the implemented policies to contain the virus to a point where we could safely return to “normal.” While individual freedom is certainly a highlight of American democracy, asking people to temporarily surrender some small aspects of that freedom in order to save the lives of those around them really shouldn’t be so controversial. 

While some of the methods used in China may be viewed as extreme or paternalistic in other countries, they were clearly more effective than the route taken by the United States. While we are currently experiencing another peak of COVID cases and seeing a higher number of new daily cases than at any other point since the outbreak began, China’s numbers greatly improved as a result of their policies, allowing them to return to “normal life” much sooner than in the US. 

Many mistakes have already been made in the US handling of the coronavirus outbreak, but at this point, the real questions lie not in the past, but in the future: what comes next? With a change in our nation’s leadership approaching, how can we implement policies that will slow the spread of the virus without impeding on the personal freedoms that Americans hold so dear? Is there a way to effectively satisfy both the values of life and freedom? Or must freedom step to the side while we handle the immediate threat of the virus?

COVID Vaccine: A Matter of Trust

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began almost nine months ago, people around the world have been begging for an answer to the same question: when will a vaccine be developed so we can return to our normal lives? As numerous companies begin to claim they are close to developing working vaccines, many are starting to feel hopeful about this “return to normal.” However, in an article published in July in The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang suggests that we may be asking all the wrong questions about this vaccine.

Zhang points out that just because a vaccine is developed, our lives won’t go back to how they were before COVID immediately. It’s likely the vaccine will require more than one dose to be effective, making distribution a major complication. Additionally, many Americans have already stated that they are unwilling or unsure about whether or not they would choose to receive the vaccine.

To me, this brings about a very important question of trust: at what point should we all feel comfortable getting vaccinated? Who should we trust for the most accurate information about the safety and effectiveness of such a vaccine? The entire pandemic has become extremely politicized, and many people feel a great level of distrust towards our current leadership, consequently saying that they wouldn’t get the vaccine if President Trump told them it was safe: they’d prefer to hear it from a doctor. While those feelings are valid, I don’t think they should change depending on who is in office.

Politicians and physicians are two completely different occupations, and the line between them has been blurred to a point that could be detrimental for many Americans. There is a tremendous safety risk in taking medical advice from a politician, whether it be one you agree with on other issues or not. This is not the job they have been trained or elected to do. For any medical issue, especially one on this large of a scale, nobody should be taking any COVID vaccine until it’s been approved by medical experts. Politicians encouraging people to take vaccines not backed by medical professionals is a violation of informed consent. By using their power and influence over citizens who are otherwise uninformed on the subject, these politicians have the means to convince people to receive a vaccine that has not been proven as safe.

As we get closer and closer to finding a vaccine, it’s important to decide where the line can be drawn: at what point in time can we feel safe receiving brand-new medicines like this vaccine? Who can we fully trust to give us the most accurate information regarding the vaccine’s safety? Should government leaders be able to declare a vaccine as “safe” with no formal medical training?

Henrietta Lacks and the Issue of Ownership

In Part II: Death of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot details what happened with both HeLa cells and Henrietta’s family after her passing. At the same time as the Lacks family was trying to move on and mourn the loss of Henrietta, the science world was booming due to the new research capabilities that Henrietta’s cells provided. 

I had a major issue with the stark contrast in the way Henrietta was treated when she was a patient at Johns Hopkins compared to the way her body was treated following her passing. While Henrietta was alive, her doctors took cells from her body without even asking her, even though she should have been the person with true ownership over the cells. However, after Henrietta’s passing, the doctors were extremely careful to receive permission from Henrietta’s husband, Day, before performing an autopsy. Skloot explains that although doctors were not legally required to ask a living patient for permission to take their tissue, it was illegal to remove tissue from the dead or perform an autopsy without consent from a family member. I find this extremely troubling: it seems as though at this time, the law truly had more respect for a dead patient’s will than that of a living one. Obviously respecting the dead is crucial, but any living person should obtain full ownership of their body. 

The issue of ownership also comes up when discussing the use of Henrietta’s cells by scientists without any permission from her family. Although her body was treated with this respect, her family was not even informed that doctors had taken Henrietta’s cells to use for research. Without any of the Lackses knowing it, HeLa cells became a celebrity in the science world, with doctors everywhere trying to obtain them to conduct all different types of research. When Dr. Gey became frustrated that the use of HeLa cells had become so widespread, Dr. Charles Pomerat told him that the cells were now “general scientific property,” and could be used by anyone in any way they wanted (p. 104). This use of the term “general scientific property” struck me: these cells, which were hardly recognized as belonging to Henrietta, were now recognized as belonging to anyone who wanted them. Just as the doctors took ownership over Henrietta’s cells after removing them from her body, they took full ownership over any profits that would be made as a result of Henrietta’s contribution. While scientists were granted with the opportunity to make tremendous profits from research that couldn’t have been conducted without HeLa cells, Henrietta’s family lived in poverty with no health insurance. 

Even though Henrietta’s family was able to take some form of ownership over her body by giving permission for an autopsy, they had no ownership over the HeLa cells and the profits that were made off of them. The ownership that was taken from both Henrietta and her family regarding her cells is a tremendous ethical violation.

Buchanan and the Right to a Decent Minimum

In “The Right to a Decent Minimum of Health Care,” Allen Buchanan begins by clarifying what constitutes something as a right. He explains that just because we can agree that people would benefit from having guaranteed healthcare, this doesn’t mean that anybody has a true right to healthcare because there is no solid justice theory supporting the right. In other words, just because something is “good” doesn’t mean we are necessarily entitled to it. 

Buchanan then explains that providing a decent minimum of healthcare can be very attractive, but before determining whether or not this idea should be implemented, people must agree upon what is considered a “decent minimum” and what procedures and treatments would be covered under such a plan. If the standard for the “decent minimum” is set low, Buchanan argues that people should be allowed to spend additional money on a higher-quality healthcare plan if they please, no different from how people can choose to spend their money on other items, like fancy cars or other expensive items. This would mean that wealthier people would still have an advantage when it comes to healthcare. If the standard for the decent minimum is raised, there could potentially be a shortage of resources. 

While I understand the point he makes, I disagree with Buchanan’s argument that healthcare is not a right. The US Constitution outlines Americans’ rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Does access to a basic level of healthcare not fall under the category of life? I don’t necessarily believe that every non-essential or extremely expensive procedure should be covered under a standard form of healthcare provided to everyone, but some more commonplace procedures can be the difference between life and death.

While I agree that people should be able to spend the money they earn however they please, I feel allowing people to pay for a more advantageous healthcare plan draws a huge gap between different groups in our society. The only way to prevent this problem is to ensure that the decent minimum encompasses any illness or condition that can be potentially life-threatening, even if it may be more expensive. Obviously a decent minimum cannot include everything, or it wouldn’t be considered a minimum. However, it’s important to note that there’s a tremendous difference between not being able to afford a new car and not being able to afford cancer treatment, for example. While having the new car may be desirable and beneficial, not having this luxury is not immediately putting anybody at harm. Healthcare, on the other hand, can be a matter of life and death in many cases. 

Buchanan’s point that there is no direct right to healthcare may be valid, but there is no denying that every American has a Constitutional right to life. Because certain procedures and treatments can save lives, denying a livable, decent minimum of healthcare is a right because it provides people with the means they need to live.

Goldman’s Refutation of Paternalism and its Exceptions

The conflict between patient autonomy and physician paternalism is the basis of countless bioethical issues. In Alan Goldman’s Refutation of Medical Paternalism, he argues that there are few justifications for abandoning patient autonomy.
Goldman begins by explaining two types of harm. The first is objective harm, which includes events that are viewed universally as undesirable, such as physical injury, hastened death, or depression. No rational being would wish any of these situations upon themself. Subjective harm, on the other hand, is when someone’s autonomy or ability to freely and creatively make decisions regarding their own life is blocked in some way. While any person can experience subjective harm at some point, it can look different for everyone and can be avoided if physicians respect patients’ wishes.
Goldman argues that subjective harm is, in the long run, more damaging than objective harm. He makes it clear that quantity of life is not as important as quality of life, and that it is not worth trying to prolong someone’s life if it goes against their wishes and beliefs for how they should live their life.
One area where I disagree with Goldman is his argument that paternalism is justified when withholding information from patients about their condition. Although telling patients about an upsetting diagnosis may increase the likelihood of depression and physical deterioration, not every patient’s priority is prolonging their life. If someone is terminally ill, they deserve to know and use this information to prepare for the end of their life. Goldman argues that we can assume someone prioritizes a prolonged life if they place themselves under a physician’s care, but this isn’t a fair assumption to be made. In the case of a terminally ill patient, they may prioritize their comfort over a prolonged life, so knowing about a poor prognosis for their illness may lead them to request an assisted suicide. Even when someone is terminally ill and it’s too late to preserve their life, they should at least be given the dignity of keeping their autonomy intact. Choosing not to tell a patient about their prognosis goes against Goldman’s argument that subjective harm is more damaging than objective harm.
Overall, Goldman’s argument is full of valid points, but I believe his support of paternalism when not informing a patient of their condition goes against his own argument of valuing autonomy over the length of someone’s life.