Introducing a Bioethical Case Study

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Students will recognize the interrelationship between science, society, and ethical considerations and predict the social, legal, and ethical implications that all members of our society need to address.

Big Idea

Law + Technology + Ethics = Bioethics


This activity helps students discover the difference between the types of questions which arise
from their reading of the text, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and serves as an
introduction to the key role bioethics plays in a modern-day society deeply influenced by
technological and scientific advancements. As students compose questions based on the
content of the reading, they will build a conceptual understanding of the fundamental nature of
ethical questions and how they can be different yet interconnected with scientific and legal


1. Recognize the interrelationship between science, society, and ethical considerations.
2. Evaluate the process and discoveries of science and the social, legal, and ethical
implications that all members of our society need to address.
3. Gather relevant scientific facts, laws, policies and ethical considerations based on
student generated inquiries about a particular bioethical issue.

National Biotechnology Standards:

BT.7.1 Differentiate between moral, ethical, and legal biotechnology issues.

BT.7.2 Research ethical issues presented by evolving science, including genetically modified foods, cloning, bioterrorism, gene therapy, and stem cells.


10 minutes

Engage (Activate Student Thinking)

Provide a brief introduction to bioethics by contrasting this field with the overarching study of ethics.

Ethics seeks to determine what a person should do, or the best course of action, and attempts to help people decide how to behave and treat one another. Ethical discussions include questions such as, “Which actions should be permitted?” or “Which action is best?”

Bioethics seeks to address ethical questions that arise with respect to biological advances. Bioethical discussions include questions such as, “Should all students be required to have vaccinations?”


10 minutes

Explore (Guided/Student-Centered Activity)

1. Describe other historic or current bioethical issues, making special mention of issues raised in the text, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. You may want to show a short clip of a news segment which provides background for the story upon which the book is based. As student view the videos instruct them to consider the following inquiry:

How does the author, Rebecca Skloot, create an interest in learning more about the story of Henrietta Lacks?

CBS Sunday Morning Segment on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

ABC Henrietta Lacks Was Never Compensated for Cells:

2. Ask student volunteers to share some of their initial reactions to the case study with others in the classroom community. Focus students’ attention on the importance of providing reasons in bioethics. Tell them that ethics involves finding and giving reasons for positions.


20 minutes

Explain (Formulate Ideas)

Why it is important to consider the ethical implications of new developments in technology as well as biological advancements and the impact they have on society?

Inform students that this introductory activity will help them compose and distinguish different types of questions as they read or view videos about the incredible story found within the text, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by sorting the questions they devise unto the following chart.


20 minutes

Elaborate (Apply and Extend Understanding)

New technologies and recent advancements in areas of research, such as cancer and stem cells, challenge traditional ideologies and even have the potential to influence our political views. Biomedical research has become more than vaccines and drug therapies and given way to the creation of biofuels and genetically modified foods, which tend to possess greater scientific, legal, and ethical ramifications. The next activity helps students become aware that when evaluating the issues that arise due to this case study many questions fall into more than one category thus illustrating the interdependence found within the fields of science, ethics, and law. The most effective bioethical analyses will take legal context and local laws into consideration as well as properly evaluate scientific questions through the review of facts obtained through observations and experimentation. Students will use the questions composed in Activity #1 as the springboard for a small group discussion on the important issues found in the case of Henrietta Lacks.

1. Begin by reviewing the questions students composed as they read the first few pages of the text, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and viewed the two news stories.

2. Create groups of 3-4 students. Supply each group with a copy of the Venn diagram handout for each student, markers, and a large piece of chart paper.

3. Ask students within each group to discuss, classify and sort the questions composed in Activity #1 unto the Venn diagram. It may be helpful to acknowledge that questions devised in response to a case such as this may fall into more than one category and should be recorded in the overlapping areas of the diagram.


30 minutes

Evaluate (Monitor Understanding)

Ask students to write their own personal one-paragraph reflection about a recent medical advancement or technological development in which they are not certain if its use is the best course of action. They should begin by briefly describing the problem or choice and end the description by summarizing the problem in the form of an ethical question. 

A few topics that have enabled students to successfully explore the intersection between law, ethics, and science have been:

- At-Home HIV Kits

- Use of Skin Gun for Non-Life Threatening or Cosmetic Reasons

- Gender Selection using In-Vitro Fertilization