The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Questions and Answers
by Rebecca Skloot

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

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Madeleine Wells eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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It's certainly true that the term "benevolent deception" is self-contradictory. The paradox of benevolent deception is that it isn't always benevolent or humane in actual terms. It gives false hope to a patient who has little chance of recovery from a fatal illness.

In the 1950s (before the modern era of "informed consent" in the healthcare industry), doctors routinely deceived their patients about their diagnoses. Many of these doctors took to heart the Hippocratic oath to "first do no harm"; they had no wish to confuse or frighten their already vulnerable patients with full disclosures about their illnesses. Henrietta's doctors deceived her because they believed that it was the compassionate thing to do; they had little expectation that a black woman would be able to comprehend all the ramifications of her illness, and they wanted to protect her from further distress.

In doing so, the doctors waived Henrietta's right to seek a second medical opinion and her ability to make informed...

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