However, a murder victim has a voice in her choice to opt into organ donation. The victim does not need to fear that she will be reduced purely to her organs — her humanity was not in question in the first place. Aborted fetuses don’t have the same assurance. The doctors who stop their hearts are in the medical profession, just like the researchers who culture their cells.
Questions surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine and its rollout.
I understand the children whose cells were the sources of these cell lines to have the same dignity and moral weight as my own children, both living and dead. When I lost child after child through miscarriage, I wondered if it was possible to donate part of my babies’ bodies to research. I hoped that my children could help other people, even if they never got to open their eyes to meet them. They were too young and too small when they died, so I never got the chance to offer, and I didn’t know who to ask to accept them. I would have asked that they not be anonymous, but that they be known by name.
HeLa, a frequently used cell line, was also cultivated under an ethical cloud. It comes from a cervical cancer culture taken in 1951 from a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. She consented to a biopsy for diagnosis, but she was never asked for permission or informed that her cells were used for other purposes.
Today, her cells are bought and sold until there are more of her cells living in labs than made up her body in life. But for years her family was unaware that her cells lived on, and they remained impoverished, unable to afford health care. When they were finally asked about their wishes, they didn’t ask that the cells be returned or that all research cease. Instead, they pushed for stronger consent protections and acknowledgment for the person behind the cells.
Each scientist working with cells isn’t formally cooperating with evil — they may be entirely unaware of an injustice at the origin of a sample. But remote material cooperation with evil is a moral question we all have to address. In a global economy, we aren’t directly orchestrating the suffering that sometimes produces the goods we consume, but we are the beneficiaries. How do we make amends for the benefits we receive as a result of an injustice?
Unraveling a generations-long injustice is likely to be slow and cumbersome. The Jesuits are trying to track down the descendants of the people they sold, to pay reparations personally where possible. But they also recognize that, over time, the evil compounded beyond their ability to track through genealogies. Making amends means going beyond the consequences they can track directly and supporting broader racial reconciliation projects.
Offering amends to Lacks means acknowledging who she was and making direct reparations where possible. The same applies to what I see as the unknown children in our cell lines. Where that knowledge has already been lost, it means making amends where we can and refusing to let the children who die before birth today be treated as medical waste or raw materials.