What is the paradox of "benevolent deception" in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The paradox of benevolent deception is that doctors used to think that it was okay to not tell patients things, especially if they were poor and black. 

A paradox is two contradictory words.  Benevolent implies being good and caring, but deception does not.  Deception is tricking someone.  Doctors in their hubris seem to think that they know what is best for the patient, regardless of how the patient feels.

In the 1950s when Henrietta was dying of cancer, it never would have occurred to her to question her doctor.  She told the doctors she was not cured, but when they sent her home she went.

This was a time when “benevolent deception“ was a common practice—doctors often withheld even the most fundamental information from their patients, sometimes not giving them any diagnosis at all. (ch 8, p. 111)

Doctors did not want to frighten or concern their patients by giving them information.  The doctor knew best, and what the patient did not know could not hurt her.  Of course, a patient cannot make an informed decision about their care.  No one questioned doctors, “especially black patients in public wards” (p. 111).  Henrietta did not know that her patients took some of her cancer cells.  She did not know what they were planning to use them for.  She never could have imagined what would end up happening to them, or how important they would become.


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