Monday, August 29, 2016

Meatless Mondays, Oprah Winfrey, and the Humane Society of the United States

by David Balashinsky

Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, recently announced on his organization's Facebook page that Oprah Winfrey has endorsed the Meatless Mondays movement.  In a post that also links to his appearance with Winfrey on SuperSoul Sunday, Pacelle writes, 
The big news coming out of my appearance with Oprah Winfrey on SuperSoul Sunday today is that she took the “Meatless Mondays” pledge and asked her 33.5 million Twitter followers to follow suit. Incredible, high impact, game-changing stuff. On today’s show, she showed such facility for the cause and a great shared passion for fighting for animals, in ways large and small. It’s great to have this amazing woman on our side. 
I write as a long-time and proud monthly financial supporter of the HSUS when I say that I am deeply disappointed to see it sully its reputation by associating itself with Oprah Winfrey.  Yes, Winfrey - to her credit - now endorses the Meatless Mondays movement.  Good for her.  But this is the same Oprah Winfrey who has gone on national television and shilled for SkinMedica, a company that manufactures anti-wrinkle face cream that is made from a line of fibroblasts harvested from the prepuce of an infant who was, in all likelihood, subjected to a non-therapeutic circumcision - a totally unnecessary genital modification surgery that causes infants excruciating pain, violates their right of bodily integrity, permanently removes a normal, sensitive and functional body part, kills over 100 of them and leaves over one million more scarred for life in the United States every year.  Of course, its use in the "beauty cream" industry may be only one of a number of uses to which the genetic material obtained from severed infant prepuces are put but it is easily the most ethically egregious.  How can one oppose an industry that exploits animals and causes them needless suffering while, at the same time, supporting an industry that exploits human infants and causes them needless suffering?  It strikes me as morally inconsistent and hypocritical to refrain from meat consumption on ethical grounds while smearing "beauty cream" made from a stolen human body part on one's face.  Yet this is exactly what Oprah Winfrey has now done.

Winfrey's hypocrisy has been noted by human rights advocates who have rhetorically questioned whether she would similarly endorse beauty products manufactured with the excised genital tissue of girls, given Winfrey's opposition to the practice of FGM.  Winfrey's double standard regarding the right to bodily integrity of boys is thrown into relief more generally by her robust advocacy on behalf of protecting children. But perhaps it is thrown into sharpest relief by her involvement in bringing the tragic story of Henrietta Lacks and the so-called HeLa cell line to the attention of a wide television audience.  Reporting for the Times on Winfrey's movie adaptation of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Salamishah Tillet writes
HeLa emerged as one of the most widely used lines in medical research and helped establish the multibillion-dollar vaccine industry, cancer treatment and in vitro fertilization industry.  This was all done without the knowledge of, consent from or any compensation paid to Lacks's family as it struggled with racism and poverty in Baltimore. 
Winfrey not only stars in this adaptation but served as an executive producer.  What is striking here is that the ethical dimension of the  misappropriation of Lacks's cells - that is, harvesting them and profiting from them without her consent - is identical to that of SkinMedica's use of fibroblasts obtained from a neonate's amputated prepuce without his consent and without any compensation to him.  In response to the controversy regarding the source of fibroblasts for its "beauty products," the founder of SkinMedica, Dr. Richard Fitzpatrick, has pointed out (as paraphrased by Bruce Demara in The Star) that "the cells are grown from a single foreskin obtained more than 20 years ago."  This makes the theft of that individual's cellular material certainly no better ethically than the theft of Lacks's.  In fact, it was almost certainly much worse.  Lack's cells were harvested while she underwent potentially life-saving surgery (to remove her cervical cancer) and she consented to the surgery itself, if not the harvesting and use of her tissue sample for biomedical research.  In contrast, the infant from whom the tissue sample was harvested - and that ultimately was used to make SkinMedica's beauty cream - never consented to the surgical amputation of his prepuce, nor was the surgery, in all probability, medically indicated (since neonatal circumcision is virtually never medically indicated).

The HSUS, as well as many other animal-welfare and animal-rights organizations, has long deplored the use of animals in cosmetics testing not merely because the animals subjected to these tests experience horrific pain but because the tests themselves are absolutely unnecessary.  As unethical as such testing is to begin with, this routine exploitation of animals becomes even more conspicuously unethical when it is done for no more noble a purpose than to gratify human vanity.  Yet how is shearing off part of an infant's penis - without his consent, with insufficient or no anesthesia and resulting in permanent disfigurement and loss of sexual sensation and function - morally any better than painful and inhumane animal testing?  How is exploiting a human infant in the process of manufacturing and selling "beauty cream" (or any other product) morally any better than exploiting an animal in the process of manufacturing and selling cosmetics (or any other product)? 

As Pacelle himself has written, "As harsh as nature is for animals, cruelty comes only from human hands.  We are the creature of conscience, aware of the wrongs we do and fully capable of making things right.  Our best instincts will always tend in that direction. . . ." (The Bond: Our Kinship With Animals, Our Call to Defend Them by Wayne Pacelle; published by William-Morrow/Harper-Collins; 2011; the quotations included here are all taken from excerpts from Pacelle's book that appear on the HSUS website.)  As I understand him, Pacelle is arguing here from the morally unambiguous (if overly optimistic) position that, because human beings have the capacity to entertain the notion of ethics, we have not merely a duty but even an innate impulse to act ethically. The focus of Pacelle's mission is to call humanity to a better version of itself and to apply the standards of integrity, rectitude and compassion to animals that we would like to believe we apply to ourselves - or, as Pacelle puts it, to uphold "the decent and honorable code that makes us care for creatures who are entirely at our mercy."  

Doesn't it go without saying that we have no less a duty to apply these same standards to our fellow human beings?  Doesn't "the decent and honorable code that makes us care for creatures who are entirely at our mercy" apply no less to infant boys than to our fellow living creatures?  Pacelle continues:
Especially within the last 200 years, we've come to apply an industrial mindset to the use of animals, too often viewing them as if they were nothing but articles of commerce, the raw material of science, or mere obstacles in the path of our own progress.  Here, as in other pursuits, human ingenuity has a way of outrunning human conscience, and some things we do only because we can - forgetting to ask whether we should.
Exactly these observations, criticisms, and questions are at the very heart of the genital autonomy movement: a movement that seeks to end the medically unwarranted but culturally normalized practices of involuntary male circumcision, female genital mutilation and the non-therapeutic sex-assignment surgery on the genitals of intersex children.   Indeed, with respect to involuntary male circumcision and the for-profit use of the genital tissue obtained by it, I can think of no more fitting a description than Pacelle's trenchant observation that "as in other pursuits, human ingenuity has a way of outrunning human conscience, and some things we do only because we can - forgetting to ask whether we should." 

Subjecting an infant to a medically unnecessary and irreversible amputation of part of his body is unethical.  To then profit from the use of that infant's excised body part in the manufacture of "beauty cream" as SkinMedica does is, by orders of magnitude, even more unethical: it is a moral abomination.  Oprah Winfrey has enthusiastically promoted this practice and this product.  I cannot think of a poorer choice as a spokesperson for the Meatless Mondays movement, much less everything else that the HSUS stands for, than Oprah Winfrey.






Postscripts: When this essay was originally published, Wayne Pacelle was the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.  He has since resigned from that position.  After initially voting to retain Pacelle - a vote that prompted seven of its members to resign in protest - the HSUS's board of directors issued a statement implicitly condemning Pacelle for having violated the organization's sexual harassment policy and naming Kitty Block, a longtime HSUS staff attorney, as acting President and CEO.

Note also that this essay has been revised (on 6 May 2018) in order to address the circumstance of Winfrey's subsequent involvement in bringing the saga of Henrietta Lacks's stolen genetic material to the screen.

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