Bioethics in Orphan Black


I’m just going to come right out and admit it – I’m supremely annoyed that Tatiana Maslany got snubbed by the Emmys.  Again.  “Sci-fi isn’t serious,” the Academy members probably thought as they considered where to place their loyalties.  Actually, they probably didn’t even think consciously about it.  I bet it’s ingrained in their psyches at this point.  I bet they’re conditioned, Pavlovian-style, to willfully ignore all sci-fi that doesn’t fit their mental image of clumsy writing, terrible special effects, and Shatnerian acting.

What follows is a SUPER SILLY post about the REALLY SHALLOW subject of bioethics in the UNBELIEVABLY CAMPY show Orphan Black.

(The sarcasm.  It burns.)

For those of you who are tragically unfamiliar with the show, here is the Wikipedia article.  It does contain spoilers for both seasons, so be warned.  I’ll proceed with the rest of this post under the assumption that you’ve done the background reading and/or just caved in and binge-watched the show.  Hint, hint.  🙂

With a few nebulous exceptions, the characters in Orphan Black fall into three main groups.  The clones and their allies (Sarah, Alison, Cosima, and Helena, along with Felix, Delphine, Art, and most of the time Mrs. S), are obviously one.  Those at the Dyad Institute, Dr. Leekie and Rachel chief among them, are another.  (I’m grouping Rachel with Dyad rather than with the clones, because she works actively against them.  I’ll discuss this in greater detail in a bit.)  Then there are the Proletheans.  The main folks in that group, of whom we see much more in season 2, include Hank Johanssen and Mark Rollins.  Though Helena was raised Prolethean, she switches allegiances later, so I won’t count her here.  These three groups each embody a distinct set of ethics, which means that the inter-group conflicts have a philosophical dimension.  Religious ethics (Proletheans) and utilitarianism (Dyad) are pitted against Kantianism (clones).  The show portrays Kantianism as the superior school of ethical thought.

First, I’ll address the Proletheans. The Proletheans we encounter in season 1, namely Maggie Chen and Tomas, are religious extremists whose beliefs dictate that Dyad’s cloning experiments are unethical (“against God’s will” would be the phrase they’d use).  They’ve raised Helena to believe that she is the original clone and that all the others are evil ripoffs.  Furthermore, they train her to be an assassin and eventually send her out to kill the other clones.  She succeeds in killing four – Janika Zingler, Aryanna Giordano, Danielle Fournier, and Katja Obinger.  In order to exact their version of justice, though, they violate both core principles of Kantianism.  One of these principles holds that people should always be treated as ends in and of themselves, rather than as means to an end.  Tomas and Maggie use Helena for their own purposes, which violates that principle.  The other principle of Kantianism is known for short as the “everybody counts” principle; according to the medical ethics textbook I studied last summer, Kantianism “requires that all persons must be treated equally.”*  Since Tomas and Maggie viewed the clones as subhuman, as abominations, their mindset violates that principle.

In season 2, we’re introduced to a group of Proletheans who violate the principles of Kantianism in slightly different ways.  The leader of this bunch is one Henrik “Hank” Johanssen.  His sidekick Mark Rollins rescues Helena from the hospital with the express purpose of delivering her to Hank.  Unlike most of the other denizens of the farm on which all these people live, Hank doesn’t see Helena (and the other clones, presumably) as subhuman, but rather as medical miracles.  In order to prove his idea to the others, he undertakes to impregnate Helena.  Hank has very little regard for informed consent; he extracts some of Helena’s eggs without her knowledge or permission (“He took something from inside of me,” Helena says mournfully to Sarah).  Furthermore, he eventually implants embryos in his daughter Gracie.  Not only does she have no choice in the matter, but he is also the biological father of those embryos (Helena is the biological mother).  Never mind the obvious squick factor/weirdly inverted Electra complex here – flouting informed consent so blatantly violates both principles of Kantianism.  Hank, though he claims to esteem Helena, treats both her and Gracie as means to an end, that end being procreation (as Mark says, “To multiply is divine”).  In his mind, their wombs are more important than they are.  That’s a clear violation of the “everybody counts” principle.

Utilitarianism concerns itself with “right actions,” deeds that “on balance, [promote] the most happiness.”**  Dr. Aldous Leekie, from the aforementioned Dyad group, uses a utilitarian model in his very first appearance on screen.  He gives a lecture at the University of Minnesota, where Cosima studies evo-devo, that reads thusly:

Neolution:  A philosophy of today for tomorrow, rooted in our past, in the evolution of the human organism. But before we go to the future, let me take you back three thousand years to the great Greek philosopher Plato and his twilight years.  Poor old Plato was going blind, going lame, and losing his hearing! Now, imagine if he knew we could correct his sight, restore his hearing, and replace his ailing body parts with titanium ones. Plato would’ve thought we were gods! But we’re not, we’re just fundamentally flawed human beings.  [To Cosima]  Your glasses, for example, make you somewhat, um, platonic. But within the very near future, I’ll be able to offer you the ability to see into a spectrum never before seen by the naked eye.  Infrared, x-rays, ultraviolet.

– Episode 1.6:  “Variations Under Domestication”

This speech is textbook utilitarian.  Dr. Leekie’s subject is, at heart, the greatest good for the most people – or, at least, what he perceives as the greatest good.  But one common critique of utilitarianism is that it can be used to justify screwing people over big-time.  The Dyad crew is a prime example of this.  In the tenth episode of the first season, Cosima and Delphine decode a genetic sequence present in all the clones.

It’s a copyright notice.  Dyad patented every single clone, as if they’re property.

Greater good or no, that’s perhaps the most flagrant violation of the ends-not-means principle in this entire show.

A close second is the manner in which Dyad keeps track of the clones.  Save Sarah and Helena, who are out of the system, all the clones have (or had) people called monitors, who secretly report on their behavior to Dr. Leekie.  In episode 1.5, “Conditions of Existence,” Sarah dreams about men who come into her bedroom (well, technically Beth’s bedroom, since she’s still pretending to be Beth at this point) and perform various medical tests on her.  When she wakes up, she chokes on and spits out an electrode.  She quickly realizes she wasn’t dreaming.  Just as Hank does later in the show, Dyad purposely didn’t get informed consent for the tests they performed on Sarah, instead operating without asking her and without intending to ask her.  Like Hank, Dyad is in the Kantian wrong.

Rachel also behaves in a manner unethical by Kantian standards.  She kidnaps Kira, Sarah’s daughter, to satisfy her need for familial connection (she gets especially broody after finding out that all clones were designed to be infertile).  This constitutes treating Kira as a means rather than an end.  When Sarah turns herself in to Dyad in hopes of getting them to release Kira, Rachel’s minions ask Sarah all sorts of invasive questions about her reproductive health, showing that they think of her as an experiment rather than a person.  Later, it’s revealed that Rachel plans to (1) have one of Sarah’s ovaries removed for further study, and (2) force her to have another child.  Rachel is both using Sarah and treating her as subhuman.

The conflict at the heart of the show is a fight for independence, for the sort of individuality that Kantianism promotes.  Sarah sums this up best during an exchange with Paul, in one of her most famous lines:

Paul:  “There are nine of you.”
Sarah:  “No!  There’s only one of me.”

– Episode 1.7, “Parts Developed in an Unusual Manner”

Since Sarah is the protagonist and Alison and Cosima are deuteragonists, we as viewers are encouraged to see the situation through their eyes and to sympathize with them – and, by extension, the Kantian principles they hold so dear.  All the clones are portrayed by Tatiana Maslany, and brilliantly so, but they are still distinct characters with their own styles, mannerisms, weaknesses, and desires.  Treating them as anything other than that, as the show posits, is unethical.


*Contemporary Readings in Bioethics, 8th edition, by Bonnie Steinbock, Alex John London, and John D. Arras, page 14.

**Ibid, page 9.


4 thoughts on “Bioethics in Orphan Black

  1. This was a really good read, Whitney. Kantianism is not something I was familiar with. I’m not sure if I have much to add to the discussion, but…

    I wonder if Henrik’s end goal isn’t (wasn’t?) just scientific interest in Helena and procreation but something like this:

    I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that movement at all, but over the course of the season seeing how many kids were at the compound and what he was willing to do with his own daughter, it struck me as similar to what I knew about that movement. Kind of the cultural mandate/”be fruitful and multiply” thing with the added ambition of himself being the one setting the world’s agenda.

    • I hadn’t connected it to Quiverfull, but that makes perfect sense – homeschooling, all of them on a giant farm in the middle of Hickland, “to multiply is divine.” Yikes. That makes them even scarier.

  2. Every time I think the Proletheans can’t get scarier… they pull me back in. It’s only a half-baked theory at best (probably closer to one third-baked) because I don’t see why he needs Helena to fulfill the Quiverful desires, but it still strikes me as similar.

    You didn’t mention them in your post, but I wonder if in season three we’re going to see the army take the utilitarian torch from Dyad. With Leekie dead and Rachel… with her little mishap, they’re in pretty bad shape, while it seems like the army and their weasel Paul are using Project Castor to breed their soldiers.

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