by David Balashinsky
As touching as this is, I think that there is a gigantic moral inconsistency in this story that deserves to be addressed. The motivation for Ms. Jackson's invention was clearly to provide comfort for her son in his mother's absence, and it seems to have succeeded spectacularly. I don't think there are many among us, in this enlightened age, who do not regard it as axiomatic that all infants, those born prematurely or otherwise, should be welcomed into the world with loving kindness, gentleness, and provided with as much comfort as possible. But in a study of its effects on "preemies" in the NICU, it was discovered that the "Zaky" produced physiological benefits as well, with significantly decreased rates of apnea and bradycardia. It should come as no surprise that a neonate who is made to feel protected, nurtured, and comforted will do better, by objective measures, than one who is isn't, and this is what the study, comparing preemies with the Zaky to those without it, appears to have confirmed. But if providing comfort for a neonate is better than not providing comfort, doesn't it stand to reason that even withholding comfort is still more beneficial than the infliction of pain and suffering? Shouldn't every neonate be treated in a way that maximizes its sense of wellbeing? Shouldn't every neonate be treated with a deference to its fragility by respecting that infant's basic human right not to be subjected to unnecessary and painful genital-alteration surgery?
Along comes the startling and paradoxical news in this otherwise heartwarming story that Ms. Jackson's enterprise received a start-up grant from none other than Oprah Winfrey. This is the same Oprah Winfrey who has shilled for SkinMedica, a company that manufactures anti-wrinkle face cream which is made from the stolen prepuces of helpless infants who have been subjected to nontherapeutic circumcision - a totally unnecessary genital surgery that annually in the United States takes the lives of over 100 infants and leaves over one million more scarred for life. Ms. Winfrey, it should be noted, is also an outspoken opponent of female genital mutilation. Evidently, male genital mutilation is perfectly okay as far as Oprah is concerned. And if a biotech company can profit from the pain and suffering of infant boys, so much the better. Perhaps more importantly, if celebrities like Oprah, who can afford SkinMedica, can preserve their youthful complexions at the expense of the pain and suffering of infant boys, that's also okay. But is it? It strikes me as the height of hypocrisy to vociferously oppose female genital mutilation while supporting male genital mutilation. Similarly, it is the height of hypocrisy to underwrite a product that is intended to comfort and aid neonates while simultaneously shilling for a company that exploits them; - while shilling for a product the manufacture of which depends upon causing infants excruciating pain, needless suffering, and permanent diminution of function and sensation of their genitalia.
I commend Ms. Jackson for inventing this product but I am disappointed that she accepted seed money from a tainted source. There have been a number of notable cases of philanthropic or otherwise beneficent organizations refusing or returning donations from discredited donors and, in my opinion, that is what Ms. Jackson should now do. For example, in 2005, Queens University returned a pledged gift of $1 million from David Radler after he pled guilty to mail fraud. Another notable case is that in which the Harvard Divinity School ultimately rejected a $2.5 million endowment from Sheikh Zayed. (Zayed was the leader of the United Arab Emirates and one of the world's richest men who, among other things, engaged in human trafficking, child slave labor, and funded an institution that promoted Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.)
A cardinal principle of non-profits that rely upon donations, as Paul Dunn writes in Nonprofit Quarterly ("When a Donor Becomes Tainted," March 21, 2010) is the principle of "value incongruence." This refers to "the degree of compatibility between the norms, values, and actions of an external stakeholder with the core values, beliefs, and activities of an organization." Ms. Jackson's company may not be a non-profit but I think it safe to assume that Jackson's aspirations for her company are that it embody core principles that are in line with those of biomedical ethics. Her product, after all, is intended for use in hospital NICUs and was designed specifically to provide comfort to neonates. Accordingly, Jackson's company ought to embody the values and ethics that should guide any healthcare provider or organization. Chief among these, of course, is the dictum, "primum non nocere": "first, do no harm." But this core value is morally irreconcilable with the core value of a company that profits from the needless pain and suffering of infants. And while I have no reason to believe that Oprah herself profits from the sale of SkinMedica's foreskin beauty cream, nor that she has received blood money from this company for her endorsement of its product, the fact remains that even if Oprah Winfrey does not profit directly or even indirectly from the unethical use of stolen body parts, she continues to be associated with a company that does. And her endorsement of this product contributes to the perpetuation of the billion dollar circumcision industry. Winfrey's association with the Zaky, therefore, taints the Zaky itself.
I hope that the Zaky finds widespread use in NICUs around the world, bringing comfort and improved health to preemies. Still, as unfortunate as it is, premature delivery is largely a natural phenomenon. If we really want to ameliorate distress, pain and suffering in neonates when their occurrence is something that we cannot prevent, shouldn't we simply avoid causing these things in the first place when we can?