I had a conversation last weekend on a controversial topic: human genome sequencing and the continued use of HeLa cells in modern medical research. The legacy of the fast-replicating HeLa cells is two-fold. On one hand, they have been used by many researchers to make significant advancements in the study of cancer and other diseases. On the other hand, they were used without the patient's consent (or that of her family), and credit was not given until fairly recently, after decades of use.
Henrietta Lacks' cells have done a lot of good for a lot of people, which is amazing. But the way they were used and the challenge the family faced to obtain eventual recognition shines a spotlight on some of the structural racism in our medical institutions. Johns Hopkins was the original research institution that collected the sample and provided it to other researchers. According to their website, it has not profited from the use or distribution of HeLa cells.
It's worth noting that Johns Hopkins has most surely profited in the form of industry clout and prestige by having such a valuable resource and by providing it to others. But that kind of reward is hard to quantify in dollars. The larger issue is of course that other, non-public institutions have used those cells in the creation of profit-producing products and medicines. So who has a right to use that kind of genetic material? Who should have access to it? And what should they be allowed to do with it?
In my ideal world, health care is driven by a desire to take care of people and everyone has a place to live, plenty of food to eat, as much education as they want, and opportunity to work on whatever they're passionate about. In that world, every scientist or student could have access to all the knowledge and materials to experiment and make fabulous discoveries because their work would be public knowledge and regulated by a confluence of community values and opinion.
Unfortunately the world we live in is profit-driven, so companies and individuals keep discoveries secret and guard their findings jealously. At the moment, there is no straight-forward mechanism for how we reconcile the need to advance science with the need to share profits with everyone who contributed to a profitable discovery. Enter the intense discussion from this weekend, which went something like this:
“I don’t have a problem with science people using something like cells from one person to make cures for many other people, but...”
“Well, I’m not okay with that!”
"The scientific advancement isn't the problem, though, using cells is probably good, but"
“No way, I’m not okay with that!”
Eventually I managed to convey that I had a two-part thought to offer. I’d like scientists to do that work, but I’d like them to do that work within a different system than we have right now. The first couple tries, I got half my comment out and was immediately shot down. My friend thought I was either with her or against her. She didn’t give me an opportunity to expand the consideration beyond the either A or B she presented.
Which is also what a lot of public discourse feels like these days. There is hardly any room for nuance in social media comment threads, and many groups seem to function entirely on the with-us-or-against-us premise (especially the most dangerous and violent ones). The current iteration of callout culture seems to have also degraded into basically an application of the all-or-nothing.
A few weeks ago, our current president was scolding the European Union for not presenting a united enough front, saying Putin would use any scrap of an excuse to call the West divided. That comment made me wonder where all that insistence was when Putin was getting up to his bullshit over the last several decades... Or where is it now with China and their abysmal human rights stance.
The thing is: disagreement is not inherently bad. It’s healthy and beneficial to bring your own perspective to the party - you’ve experienced things in a different way than others, so you see things someone else might miss. The unhealthy practice constantly exemplified by national and international leadership is to pretend like those differences don’t exist when you have to come together on one thing you do agree on. It makes a stronger, more credible stance on issue A to be truthful and transparent about disagreeing on other things.
Every once in a while there is no way to come together. For example: you either want everyone’s humanity to be recognized or you want some people to be considered more human than others. If you are in the later camp, we really can't work together on solving any other societal problems because we will never be working in the same reality. Otherwise, you’re either with us or against us is a non-useful fabrication.
There are very few irreconcilable arguments when the rhetoric is stripped down to the core values. Which is why we cannot continue to stop at the surface statement if we want to make any progress toward a better world. We must instead take the next step to ask questions about what values or what principles are driving the offending argument. That’s where we can either agree or disagree. And that's where we can find some shared values to build upon.
There’s plenty people don’t agree on. Across the world we don’t even use the same system of measurement. Our slang is completely different. But in the end we're all the same fancy apes we have always been. Just because we don’t agree on one thing doesn’t mean we suddenly stop being able to agree on some other thing. That whole other territory between Camp Agreed-Upon Stuff and Camp Unagreed-Upon Stuff is called common ground.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.