Simon Woods is a philosopher who specialises in medical ethics. Simon works at the Policy, Ethics & Life Sciences Research Centre at Newcastle University. His colleague Dr Pauline McCormack will be taking part in the Post-Show Discussion for How To Be Immortal on Friday 21 February at 9.15pm.
Do you own your own body? This might sound like a strange question because for many people the answer is so obvious that it is not worth asking. You might reply: “of course I own my body because who else could possibly ‘own’ it? Isn’t this the way that we make sense of ideas like others can’t touch me without my permission, doctors can’t examine me, take my blood, or perform surgery on me without my consent?” Or you might respond; “Of course I don’t own my body, bodies aren’t the kind of thing you own. In some senses I am my body and therefore to respect me is to respect my body, and you shouldn’t hurt or damage it, make fun of it, and you should respect my wishes about how I would like my body to be treated”. Both responses make sense and both lead to thoughts about respect, control, freedom and personal autonomy which most societies believe are important. It is in the light of these obvious yet important considerations that we can begin to take account of the significance of the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American woman who died in 1951 of a virulent strain of cancer.
A sample of tissue taken from Henrietta, without her consent or her family’s knowledge, became the basis of a multi-million dollar biotech industry. Known to the scientific world as HeLa cells they have been grown, copied and modified to be used in many different areas of research including cancer and vaccine research. Most people reading this piece will have benefitted either directly or indirectly from Henrietta’s cells. Unfortunately Henrietta died of her cancer but should she or her family have any claim on those cells?
Although the cells were originally freely shared a great deal of money has been made from the HeLa cell industry. There has been a great deal of human benefit too. Henrietta’s family remained poor but they also remained in ignorance of what had happened to Henrietta’s cells until about twenty years later when they learned that her cells had been made immortal! Did that mean that Henrietta was immortal? It is quite a thought to get your mind around.
Human tissues, body parts, and cells remain vital in medical treatment (kidney transplants, blood transfusions) and research. All of the major areas of medical research such as cancer research, dementia research, infectious diseases research, could not happen without the use of human tissues. So, returning to my original question. If your body is yours, is it OK for medical scientists to use your body parts without your permission? Should you be rewarded financially? Should you expect to benefit directly from being involved in research? Although the answers to these questions can be found in laws and regulations they still remain important questions especially as medical science will forever push at the boundaries in the quest for new knowledge and new benefit.
How To Be Immortal is, at Live Theatre, on Friday 21 & Saturday 22 February at 7.30pm. Tickets cost £14-£10, over 60s concs £12-£10, other concs £5. There is a free Post-Show Discussion after the Friday performance at 9.15pm. Find out more and book tickets here or call Live Theatre’s Box Office on (0191) 232 1232.
By Simon Woods