Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a double preventative mastectomy is a teachable moment in bioethics. But as a columnist in the Financial Times points out, it’s hard to know what the lesson is. Jolie said that she made the news public to help other women realise that they have choices. But, given her celebrity status as an international sex symbol, she is in a league of her own. What exactly can women learn from her unique case?
Another lesson is political. Her op-ed in the New York Times was clearly aimed at influencing the deliberations of the US Supreme Court on Myriad Genetics’ claim that it can patent the BRCA 1 and 2 genes which indicate a susceptibility for cancer. Currently tests for the genes cost about US$3,000. Jolie says that women should be able to access “gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live”.
The most important lesson, perhaps, was glossed over in the wall-to-wall media coverage: how much fear influences women’s decisions about breast cancer. “We are confronting almost an epidemic of prophylactic mastectomy,” Dr Isabelle Bedrosian, a surgical oncologist at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, told the New York Times. “I think the medical community has taken notice. We don’t have data that say oncologically this is a necessity, so why are women making this choice?”
Removing body parts is a pretty barbaric treatment for a disease which you don’t have. If campaigns to increase awareness of breast cancer leave women in a state of barely suppressed panic and make them take decisions which may be medically unwarranted, should we rethink the campaigns?
What is the world’s most beautiful woman teaching us?
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