Beach Blanket Bioethics

by David Perlman, PhD, President & Founder of E4-Eclipse Ethics Education Enterprises, LLC

I borrowed the title of this blog post from Nancy Berlinger, PhD, at the Hastings Center. Every spring, before the summer season, she writes a post for the Hastings Center Bioethics Forum about works of fiction that tackle ethical issues in research and medicine.

Bioethics as entertainment is nothing new. My personal Top 10 List of films, books, and television programs show research gone awry is:

  1. Coma
  2. Dark Angel 
  3. I Am Legend
  4. The White Plague
  5. Limitless
  6. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
  7. Frankenstein
  8. Jurassic Park
  9. The Fly
  10. The Hulk

These pieces of fiction are terrific for reflecting on research ethics. Fiction has an allure that fact lacks. With fiction, we can do the sorts of (thought) experiments that no institutional review board (IRB) in their right mind would ever approve. Stories resonate with our moral sensibilities. As I have written elsewhere, “stories are important tools for synthesizing universal truths from particular glimpses into our shared human condition.”

When I read a work of fiction that attempts to address ethical issues, I find myself using my moral imagination to play out the “what if” scenarios that confront the characters. Perhaps this is because, as a child of the 1970s, one of my first fiction reading experiences included the terrific Choose Your Own Adventure books. In this series of books, the reader becomes the protagonist and must confront moral choices. Some choices end badly; some don’t. Reflection on the likely consequences of one’s choices is at the heart of these books. In this way, these books, more so than straightforward works of fiction, help shape and sharpen one’s moral imagination and help to inculcate the habit of moral reflection. For this reason (and as a philosopher who studied the Ancient Greeks), I know Aristotle would have been pleased with the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

As an ethicist, I have often wondered why there aren’t more books about ethics that use this interactive format. So, I decided to write my own. Here’s a blurb I prepared to introduce people to the book, which takes place in the not-so-distant future:

My recipe for a creepy futuristic sci-fi novel: Take one part Robin Cook’s & Michael Crichton’s Coma, mix in one part Jessica Alba in Dark Angel. Stir in an organ transplant shortage, a devious surgeon, a nefarious body snatcher, and families of vegetative patients who would donate a kidney in exchange for perpetual life support. Whisk in the ability to choose your own adventure throughout and what do you get? A perfect “organ farm.” 

My novel, The Organ Farm, tackles issues of medical experimentation with patients in permanent vegetative state (PVS). The surgeon in the book trades the use of the patients’ bodies (as organ and tissue donors, especially ova for fertility experiments, which are fertilized then implanted back into the female PVS patients to gestate the fetuses) in exchange for continued medical maintenance of the patients. The description from says it best:

The year is 2022, and bioethics has come full circle. Learn how guerilla bioethicist, Maria Vasquez, infiltrates the medical tourist transplantation operation of Dr. Wallace Jefferson and what happens when she discovers that Jefferson’s illegal operating room in former US base Guantanamo Bay has become a new base of operations for Dr. Zoltan Zaros’ stateside fertility clinic Pregnancy Viability Systems, Inc.

I invite members of the PRIM&R community to check out The Organ Farm and leave a comment with your own Top 10 “Beach Blanket Bioethics” List of the books and films you would watch or read when on vacation and why.