He was attending his MBA lecture on ‘ethics of business innovation.’ His benchmark for judging the morality of any business decision was the utilitarian principle of ‘greatest good for most number of people.’ But this lecture challenged him by introducing the principle of ‘informed consent’ through a case story of Henrietta Lacks.
In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer by doctors at Johns Hopkins. During her biopsy, cell samples were taken and given to a researcher who had been working on the problem of trying to grow human cells. Henrietta’s cancer spread wildly, and she was dead within a year. But her cells turned out to be an incredible discovery because they continued growing at a very fast rate. The HeLa cells would be crucial for confirming that the polio vaccine worked and soon companies were created to grow and ship them to researchers around the world.
Unfortunately, no one ever asked Henrietta’s permission and her family knew nothing about the important role her cells played in medicine for decades. Poor and with little formal education, Henrietta’s children were confused by what was actually done to their mother.
The story felt personal. He felt bad for Henrietta’s family. They were denied the basic tenet of humanity – the freedom of choice.