The Future of Our Families? – ‘My Sister’s Keeper’ (Picoult, 2004)

July 24, 2007

To date only a handful of, so called, ‘saviour siblings’ have been born worldwide. These children (the oldest is now 8 years old) were conceived by IVF and have been specially selected to be tissue matches for an existing, ailing sibling. In general, these siblings suffer from incurable – though often treatable – anaemias or leukaemias, some of which have a genetic component. Their newborn siblings, as the term saviour suggests, are ‘designed’ to save their lives. This is the background to American author Jodi Picoult’s 2004 novel My Sister’s Keeper. The story follows sisters’ Kate and Anna Fitzgerald as they, and their family, confront extraordinary circumstances.

Picoult (2004). My Sisters Keeper.

Picoult (2004). “My Sister’s Keeper”. Hodder and Stoughton: London.

Kate, 16, who suffers from Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APL) – a rare and aggressive form of cancer – is dying. Her younger sister, Anna, 13, was born to be her ‘saviour’. Anna is an human leukocyte antigen (HLA) matched donor for Kate, and while in real cases it is only umbilical cord blood that has been donated, Picoult’s novel imagines a situation in which much more is required. As Picoult’s story progresses we learn that Kate did indeed receive a transfusion of cells taken from Anna’s umbilical cord blood. This blood, rich in compatible stem cells, was intended to repopulate her bone marrow and effectively cure her leukaemia – a treatment which apparently worked. However, as is obvious from what, in the book, constitutes the current situation, this was only a temporary phenomenon. Picoult’s Kate suffers a relapse, which, following initial treatment with Anna’s compatible platelets and ultimately her donated bone marrow, locks them both into a seemingly endless cycle of, not only, operations and hospital visits, but also, responsibility, guilt, love and resentment.

Over the years Picoult describes the numerous procedures the character Anna goes through in her unchosen efforts to fulfil the role of ‘saviour’. This culminates in the prospect of kidney donation – the book’s present day. Faced with this Anna hires a lawyer, Campbell, and takes her parents to court in order to “petition for medical emancipation” (Picoult, 2004: 49). The book follows the build up to, conduct and aftermath of this action, through which Anna fights for the right to refuse this donation – an outcome, both she, and her family, know Kate will die without.

As with many works of fiction, Picoult takes current science, imagines ‘what could be’, and explores some of the social, psychological, emotional and – in this case legal – consequences that might follow. As a work of fiction My Sister’s Keeper seems a scarily realistic, though also, moving picture of a normal family under extreme pressure. However, as a source of insight into the ethical dilemmas presented by the creation of ‘saviour siblings’ it also has its value. While not presenting arguments according to philosophical principles, this book functions as a very effective exploration of possible social implications and potential endpoints of the use of HLA typing in this way. Below are just some of the common bioethical concerns about the creation of saviour siblings that My Sisters Keeper addresses (the page numbers given here refer to episodes, conversations or interactions within the book that highlight each issue particularly well):

  • The welfare and best interests of the child to be born – pages 286-289 illustrate how the donation of umbilical cord blood may turn into a succession of more invasive and therefore more ethically problematic donations, also how, in practice, the best interests of the saviour sibling may be balanced against those of the child to be saved
  • The instrumentalisation of the child – pages 64-65 and the bathroom scene on page 25 show the Fitzgeralds as a complete family with Anna as an addition only to save Kate, while pages 53-54, 196-197 and 405-407 show her as a loved and valued family member, just like any other
  • Consent – pages 20-21 and 292-296 provide a good illustration of how consent to non-therapeutic medical treatment (e.g. bone marrow or blood donation) is handled currently for minors
  • The long-term experience of the child – pages 1-2 and 89-90 are short but powerful examples of how Anna, at 13, experiences being a saviour sibling, and how that knowledge has become a part of her identity.

These themes are explored in greater depth in the BioethicsBytes Extended Commentary that accompanies this post. The commentary also highlights how Picoult’s story emerged from ethical arguments around the creation of saviour siblings in reality, and how My Sister’s Keeper elaborates some of these arguments through the multiple viewpoints of the characters and their interactions.

My Sister’s Keeper was written by Jodi Picoult, and published in the UK in 2005 by Hodder and Stoughton, London. ISBN: 9780340835463.

Update 4th April 2015: The film adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper is now available to members of subscribing institutions via Box of Broadcasts.

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