History of Medical Ethics

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To have a complete understanding of a present situation one must have a complete understanding of the past. Human innovation has made more leaps in the past hundred years than ever before in human history, but many of the ideas and values western society runs on have fundamental roots in much earlier societies. The roots that extended into the modernity of medical ethics laws were articulated in Ancient Greece in the form of the Hippocratic Oath.

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Unfortunately, it was not until the decades following WWII that rules regarding medical ethics were written into law. Just four years after the creation of the Nuremberg Code in 1947(a set of research ethics principles written in response to the horrendous treatment by Nazi doctors to Jewish prisoners) an individual named Henrietta Lacks’ cells were removed from her body without consent (Jonsen 97). Just as human innovation has made several leaps, the history of medical ethics has seen drastic improvements from the mid-twentieth century to the present; from the Cobbs v. Grant case making informed consent law in 1972 to the enactment of HIPAA in 1996 (Deiter).

Many medical breakthroughs occurred between 1945-65 including the beginning of organ transplantation, brain, and heart surgery, and many other powerful medical tools. Despite these tools being revolutionary to the medical community, there was not always enough of the new technology to go around, and for doctors, this became an agonizing process. So agonizing in fact, that Professor of Medical Ethics Albert R. Jonsen states: “the scientific search for answers pressured researchers to turn patients into guinea pigs” (Jonsen 100). The doctor who diagnosed Henrietta Lacks, Richard Wesley TeLinde, was one of these researchers. TeLinde, like many doctors in this time period, used his own patients for research. When Henrietta’s cells were biopsied in 1951, she was not the first person whose living tissue had been taken; TeLinde collected samples from any woman at Hopkins with cervical cancer (Skloot 30). Consent at this time was neither required nor customarily sought and as a result, Henrietta and all the other patients who had had samples taken from them were not aware their cells had been taken.

Although there were no informed consent laws for human research at this time, ironically, consent was required after death. Medical laws made it clear that consent was needed in order to legally perform an autopsy or collect tissue from the dead (Skloot 89). The sole fact that the dead had more legal rights than the living only begins to scratch the surface of the atrocities of mid-twentieth century medical ethics. In 1953, just a few years after the death of Henrietta Lacks (1951) came the discovery of DNA; new ideas of genetic engineering and control lead to the revitalization of the pseudoscience called eugenics. Racists and elitist visions reemerged out of the woodwork,

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