Is ethics universally valid or can we act differently as moral individuals than as ethical representatives of public institutions?

I just read a well-argued article in Science Policy Forum, discussing whether patients should be paid for their tissue. As their point of departure, the authors cite the (by now) famous case of Henrietta Lacks.

Contrary to the many readers and reviewers of the bestseller who thought that Henrietta Lacks was exploited by the medical establishment, the authors arrive at the following conclusion. In cases similar to that of Henrietta Lacks, patients (or their families) are NOT entitled to payment for their tissue. – Why not?

First of all, there are no property rights for human bodies, people don’t own the tissue they leave: no one has the right to demand payment for their tissue.

People should, however, be compensated for the effort of giving the tissue. But there is no such effort associated with patient samples, since the samples were taken for the sake of caring for the patients. There is no effort to compensate for.

But what about the revenue generated by the tissue? Can people make millions of dollars on patients’ cells, as in the Henrietta Lacks case, without sharing the profits with the patients (or with their families)?

Once again, the authors argue convincingly that patients have no right to demand payment or part of revenue streams. The tissues are only raw material for developing cell lines. It is the intellectual work of the investigators that creates value. Moreover, since so few donors have tissue that can be used to generate profitable medical products, the end result of trying to be fair by sharing profits with these few lucky donors would be injustice vis-à-vis the majority of donors.

What interests me here is that although I consider the ethical policy proposed in the article as well-argued and right, I can still understand if a morally concerned individual saw injustice in a case like that of Henrietta Lacks and decided to donate money to her family.

Consider this passage from the article:

  • “Christoph Lengauer, a cancer drug developer and former Hopkins faculty member, articulated this sense of inequity when he reportedly told Lacks’s daughter that he thought Hopkins had ‘screwed up’ by not sharing some of the proceeds from the HeLa cell line with the Lacks family.”

The Science Policy Forum article demonstrates that this accusation is not as reasonable as it might seem.

Still, if a concerned individual (like Lengauer) saw injustice in a destiny like that of Henrietta Lacks and personally donated money to the family, I think I could see that as a perfect moral action and not necessarily as deluded.

Can one appreciate the ethical arguments for a policy not to pay patients for their tissue, and still, as an individual, experience injustice and personally donate money?

Unless we demand that human beings should be like representatives of public institutions through and through, I think we can admit such a possibility. It would even make me uncomfortable if we didn’t acknowledge such freedom.

Pär Segerdahl

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