This is a guest post by Kailyn Price and Jacob Zionts. It discusses their thinking on some of the ethical dilemmas faced by organ transplant committees through the lens of The God Committee.
(Note: this post contains spoilers)
It is 2021 and Dr. Jordan Taylor (played by Julia Stiles) sighs relievedly as she sees the genetically modified pig heart that she has just transplanted into the chest of a baboon beat and come back to life. The apparently successful operation serves as the climax to Austin Stark’s The God Committee, a fast-paced medical drama that grapples with the ethics of transplant committees, xenotransplantation (cross-species transplantation), and benefit calculations.
Despite the achievement, the scene is haunted by Dr. Taylor and her transplant committee’s decision a decade earlier to accept a bribe from a suspiciously wealthy man whose adult son desperately needed a heart. Prior to learning of the twenty- something’s condition and prospect of a bribe, the committee had been coalescing around a decision between two other candidates: 1) a middle-aged Black man who struggled with bipolar disorder but is also a loving father of three daughters, and 2) a curmudgeonly 70-year-old white woman who demeans her nurses, has little extant family, and seems ambivalent about receiving the heart. The bribe required the committee to ignore the son’s typically disqualifying drug use and deprioritize the other candidates but, ultimately, funded the research that culminated in the pig-to-baboon heart transplant and enabled the hospital to care for more patients.
The God Committee wants its audience to walk away thinking that the ends justified the means—that the hard-nosed consequentialism of the committee and their willingness to shoo aside the more deontological and virtue-oriented constraints of standard bioethics were necessary to secure the greater good. But we don’t think that’s the right message to take home. In this post, we will explicate and reject both of the committee’s reasons for accepting the bribe: (1) saving the hospital and (2) securing xenotransplantation funding. In the end, we argue that (1) accepting the bribe undermines the committee’s ability to act in the best interest of the hospital’s patients; and (2) the film’s narrow focus on xenotransplantation occludes the upstream causes of heart failure that are imminently targetable with status quo technologies and, critically, have the upshot of positively interacting with the demands of racial, environmental, and animal justice.