How does Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, compare to philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and psychologist Michael S. Gazzangia?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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One significant difference between Rebecca Skloot, author of bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah is that Skloot is primarily a science writer, while Appiah is a "philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist" ("Kwame Anthony Appiah"). However, that being said, science and culture are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Skloot wrote her bestseller knowing that the history surrounding Henrietta Lacks's cells "raises important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class" (Skloot, "A Few Words About This Book," p. xiv). The greatest ethical issue Skloot's book raises concerns the fact that Henrietta's cells were taken for research without her consent and without even her family's knowledge for 25 years; more importantly, it is still not considered illegal to take tissue samples from patients to be used for research, despite the fact that legal cases have been fought concerning the issue. As Skloot explains, people feel "a strong sense of ownership when it comes to their bodies," even to the smallest amount of tissue (p. 317). However, as it stands, courts rule in favor of medical research, because medical research is more important than mere feelings of attachment. In response to courts' decisions, Skloot also argues through a source that values of "autonomy and personal freedom" should be considered more important than scientific advancements (p. 321). Hence, through her book, Skloot served to investigate the ethical issue, an issue still applicable today, concerning whether or not researchers should have a legal right to use tissue samples for research without patient consent.

Beyond the ethical issue concerning tissue use in research, Skloot's book also raises ethical questions concerning culture and class. As it is known, Henrietta Lacks was a working-class African American woman who was treated in the "colored ward" in Johns Hopkins because it was the only Baltimore hospital that would treat African Americans due to segregation laws (Keiger, "Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues," p. 2). Naturally, the ethical practice of segregation laws has already been called into question, and the human values of equality and personal freedom have already won the debate--segregation laws are now viewed as unconstitutional. Regardless, Skloot's book certainly does allow for more cultural awareness concerning the historic practice of segregation laws. More importantly, the taking of Henrietta's cells also calls into question issues of class. In earlier eras, according to Dale Keiger of Johns Hopkins Magazine, researchers thought it acceptable to value scientific discovery above the person and to treat patients not as human beings but as research. Keiger cites David Nichols who explained that the scientists saw themselves as being of a higher class than the patients, especially patients like Henrietta Lacks. As Nichols expressed the doctor-patient relationship, "It was a relationship that was utterly imbalanced with respect to power and privilege. There's a lingering sense, even today, of this imbalance, which as deep historical roots" (as cited in Keiger, p. 2). Hence, even though Skloot is a science writer, her works, such as her bestseller, certainly bring up issues concerning ethics and culture.

Similarly, Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the world's leading philosophers, examines such issues as cultural progress among developing nations. He specifically argues against intervention in developing nations by UNICEF and Oxfam and instead argues for "long-term political and economic development ... according to the Western capitalist/democratic model" ("Kwame Anthony Appiah"). He further examined the issue of cultural unity in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. For the ethical philosophies argued in his book, Appiah drew from the "cosmopolitan ideal" professed in the 4th Century by Greek Cynics ("Book review: Cosmopolitanism"). The Greek Cynics argued that living virtuously in accordance with nature is the purpose of life ("Cynicism (philosophy)"). They further argued that "all human beings were fellow citizens of the world" ("Book review"). According to a book review published on Appiah's own website, Appiah's book explores the following moral questions:

How is it possible to consider the world a moral community when there's so much disagreement about the nature of morality? How can you take responsibility for every other life on the planet and still live a life of your own? ("Book review")

Hence, as we see, although Rebecca Skloot is a science writer, both she and world-renowned philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explore questions of cultural ethics and morality.

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