‘Sesame Street’ Was My Strange And Surprising Introduction To Bioethics

I’m not really a hugger.

Within seconds of meeting Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath however, I found my arms wrapped tightly around him, my face pressed up against his colorful patterned sweater.

“I’m sorry,” I managed. “I just . . . you’re just . . . I didn’t even ask if I could hug you! I’m so sorry.”

“What’s your name?” Bob said, completely unfazed by the weeping 32-year-old woman standing in front of him.

“Elizabeth,” I croaked, trying not to cry directly on him.

Elizabeth,” the 84 year old, impossibly lovely Bob said, as he gently put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in this eyes. “There is no need to apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong. And it’s really nice to meet you!”

I had the chance to meet Bob — along with Emilio Delgado (Luis), Sonia Manzano (Maria), Roscoe Orman (Gordon) and Alison Bartlett (Gina) — at an event this past December at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. (Alan Muraoka — who plays Alan on the show — was also there, but he wasn’t on when I watched, so fortunately for him, I left him alone.)

After I learned that when Sesame Street moves to HBO from its longtime home at PBS, it would not be taking beloved characters Bob, Luis, and Gordon along (Maria announced her retirement last year), it felt like a close friend told me he was moving away. It made me sad knowing that future generations of children won’t have the opportunity to learn from them, and made me reflect on how lucky I felt to have had the opportunity to meet them in December.

After an insightful panel discussion at the event, where each person discussed his or her time on Sesame Street, they all graciously stayed after to meet and take photos with those in attendance. Most of the other people there in their 30s were attending with a small child. I, on the other hand, was there by myself, and genuinely wanted to thank the members of the cast and let them know that Sesame Street instilled in me a lifelong love of learning — seriously! — which ultimately resulted in getting my doctorate. And not just any old Ph.D. — one in bioethics, where I utilize lessons I first learned on Sesame Street.

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My job as a bioethicist entails analyzing ethical concerns emerging from new medical procedures and research, and weighing in on medical policy. Bioethics involves making informed decisions based on doing the most good and the least harm — skills I initially acquired from a group of Muppets and humans that coexisted in a New York City neighborhood.

While the connection between a giant, yellow, perpetually-6-year-old bird, a grouch that lives in a trashcan and an animated pinball game featuring the funkiest bassline in children’s programming (if not the world!) . . . and analyzing some of the most controversial medical procedures and research might not seem obvious, the show is the ideal primer on ethics.

While it’s impossible to highlight all of the segments over 47 years that teach kids about ethics, here are a few ideal examples (admittedly skewed towards episodes airing in the 1970s and 1980s).

Ernie and Bert Learn About Distributive Justice

The ethical principle of justice dictates that benefits and burdens of resources and research should be shared. No one person or group should always be at a disadvantage. Ernie and Bert discuss this when attempting to determine who should get the bigger slice of apple pie. When Ernie gives Bert the noticeably smaller piece of pie, Bert informs him that if he had two pieces of pie, he would offer Ernie the bigger piece and take the smaller piece for himself. Ernie points out that Bert does have the smaller piece of pie, so regardless of who was making the decision, the result would have been the same. Kids watching, who probably would also prefer the bigger slice of pie, notice — and learn — that someone always getting the better deal isn’t fair. This is a lesson applicable not only with baked goods, but also, for example, with the allocation of funding for medical infrastructure.

The 10 Commandments of Health and Beneficence

In the song “The 10 Commandments of Health,” a doctor and his team inform a patient on an operating table what he should be doing to live a healthier life, presumably so he won’t end up needing surgery again. The 10 helpful hints range from focusing on the individual (“wash your hands before you eat”) to those concerned with public health (“cover your nose and mouth whenever sneezing or coughing”). This song demonstrates the doctors’ concern for the patient’s well-being — in other words, the ethical principle of beneficence. Unfortunately, this song is also an example of paternalism in medicine as all of the doctors are male (don’t tell me there wasn’t a generic lady Muppet laying around they couldn’t have thrown in there), as well as the concept of members of the medical profession doling out suggestions without necessarily listening to the needs of the patient.

Mr. Hooper and End-of-Life Issues

You can skip the clip on this one — I can’t watch it without completely falling apart — but I had to include it because of the profound impact it had on me and countless other children coming to terms with the meaning of death. Dying is a confusing and terrifying concept for most adults, let alone trying to present it in a way that is sensitive to children without talking down to them. When Will Lee (the actor who played Mr. Hooper died in real life) the show could have easily replaced him with another actor, said that he moved away, or just ignored the issue entirely. Instead, they used this as a teachable moment. Sesame Street writers and producers consulted with child psychologists and educators to ensure that script didn’t sugar-coat death or provide children with false hope of loved ones’ return.

When the episode aired, it featured a scene where the people on Sesame Street explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper is dead, and that when people die they don’t come back — because they can’t. Big Bird says that he is sad and asks why it has to be this way. Gordon responds by telling him that “it has to be this way because. Just because.” It’s not a satisfying answer, but it is the only one we have, and this episode addresses children as people with the capacity to understand — including when understanding means accepting that there are some things that can’t be understood.

An important aspect of applied bioethics is coming to terms with the reality of death — particularly in situations surrounding end-of-life care, or dying with dignity. For many medical procedures, death is a possible outcome, and understanding that as a patient, medical professional, or patient’s loved one is a crucial part of care. When someone exercises their autonomy (another principle of bioethics) by granting informed consent for treatment or research, considering issues surrounding quality of life and death is part of the process.

Oscar the Grouch: A Lesson in Respecting Different Perspectives

Despite his best efforts, Oscar the Grouch is inherently lovable. He lives in a trashcan, has a worm for a pet, hates when it’s sunny, and regularly tells people to “have a rotten day.” For many children, this may be their first exposure to someone who thinks differently and has their own unique value system. This is particularly useful in bioethics when helping people make difficult medical decisions for themselves or loved ones in cases where their personal beliefs may clash with the person receiving treatment. What might seem to be the most obvious option to you (for instance, undergoing an experimental heart surgery with the hopes of living a healthier and more fulfilling life) may seem like the worst possible choice by others. (Using the same example, folks could believe the surgery could fail or have complications that ultimately end the person’s life). Oscar shows us that it’s okay to have your own set of beliefs, but to always consider that others may not think the same way — what’s “right” is often relative.

Ernie and Bert Demonstrate Nonmaleficence with Tap Dancing Sheep

In the classic song, “Dance Myself to Sleep,” Ernie experiences insomnia and attempts to relieve it through an escalating series of actions starting with turning the lights on, stretching, yawning, and deep breathing, but eventually resorts to tap dancing and playing the bugle with a troupe of sheep. The scene culminates with the Boogie Woogie Sheep lifting Bert’s bed off the floor and moving him outside (how is that possible in a New York City apartment? Is Bert on the fire escape?), while Ernie shuffles off to dreamland and sleeps soundly. Despite Bert’s audible objections (“Oh no, not the bugle!”), Ernie disregards Bert’s needs in favor of his own desire to sleep. This demonstrates to viewers the importance of considering how your actions could potentially negatively impact others — a version of the ethical principle of nonmaleficence (to “do no harm”).

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So there you have it. The next time your niece insists on watching her fifth hour of Sesame Street, remember that it might be in your best interest, as she may be making your medical decisions at some stage in the future, and could benefit from the basics of bioethics offered on the show.

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Lead Image: muppet.wikia.com