Henrietta Lacks: Used as a Means to an End

“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”

Every person on Earth is multi-faceted: each has more sides to him or her than one would expect. This is why problems occur when people are treated as one-dimensional characters, as this perspective conflicts directly with an individual’s inherent human nature. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, both the media and the scientific community are guilty of treating the Lacks family as a mere collective tool; only Skloot herself shows respect for the family.

Science is based on cold, hard facts, and the attitude the scientific community developed is on par with just that mentality: cold and unfeeling. When Henrietta’s cells were taken, she was no longer Henrietta Lacks to the scientists. Instead, she became HeLa, a cell line with no human identity. In fact, there is no recognition given to her for the longest time, and when recognition is given, she is called “Helen Lane” by the scientists and the media for the longest time. It is this attitude towards Henrietta that later is directed at her family. Hsu attempts to draw more blood from the Lackses even after hearing about their hardships: “If they are willing, I wouldn’t mind to go back and get some more blood” (Skloot 190). The consequence of viewing the Lackses as an abstraction is clear in the scientific community; these people, with unique identities, are treated as lab rats. They were only recognized for their medical potential, and so all other merits of the Lackses disappeared in the scientists’ eyes. This approach may seem justified for scientific purposes, but this is a problem because this is a violation of the family’s inherent moral worth. Such an approach is also problematic because it reduces the worth of the Lacks family; if there is no distinction in function between a lab rat and a human, that signifies a serious lack of morality which is bad for society as a whole.

While the scientific community had minimal interest in the actual life of Henrietta, the major news companies had a larger interest. If this interest had been used ethically, the story of HeLa could have been known much better; however, that is not what happened. The media made it seem as though the scientists had done no wrong. During the filming of the BBC documentary, Zakariyya becomes angry because of the claim that Henrietta “donated” her cells to the scientists: “He yelled and threw programs when he saw that they listed…Henrietta as the woman who ‘donated’ the HeLa cells” (220). In this sense, the news companies played a catalytic role in preventing the world from truly knowing the truth. It was because they only viewed the Lacks family as a subject for a story that they did not work harder to find out about the truth. The media also sensationalizes many of the scientific findings using HeLa cells: “One was called HUMAN, PLANT CELLS FUSED: WALKING CARROTS NEXT? The other was MAN-ANIMAL CELLS BRED IN LAB” (238). This tactic only acts to further alienate Henrietta from her family and scares Deborah into believing that her mother had become part plant and was in excruciating pain. The nature of the news stations violates the principle of viewing an individual as a universe; this is why the high-profile media could never help the Lacks family, as the help they needed was not publicity but somebody who would tell their multi-faceted human story.

Rebecca Skloot, as an independent author struggling to write about the truth, was the only person to truly view the Lacks family as a group of people with their own stories to tell. For one, Rebecca did not sensationalize anything she wrote in her book. Her main motive was not money but was the quest to find out more about a topic that seemed shrouded by time. She realizes that the Lackses are a living family rather than a group of test subjects or money-makers, so she sets up the trust fund that helps the Lacks children to further their education in the future. Above all however, she has actual human contact with the family. She talks, eats, and spends sleepless nights with Deborah, learning not only about Henrietta but about the history of Deb’s life as well. She also grows a small bond with Devon, as they get to see each other often through the close relationship Deb and Rebecca maintained. She also does something the scientific community and the high profile media never attempted: she educates the family on Henrietta’s cells. She explains how a cell works to Lawrence and brings Deborah and Zakariyya to learn and see HeLa cells in person.

Although the scientific community viewed Henrietta as HeLa cells and the media viewed her as a way to make more money, Rebecca Skloot saw a damaged family and did something the other two parties failed to do: she viewed the Lackses as individuals, with a universe within them. By understanding the treasures, anguishes, and secrets of the family, Rebecca was able to avoid the consequences of only looking at life in the abstract and was able to help restore an otherwise hurt family.

The Nature of Henrietta Lacks’ Immortality

HeLa cells are the most important discovery in science and have led to many advances in medical sciences. This is due to the fact that these cells rapidly reproduce and have a mysterious trait to them – their immortality. For HeLa cells, it means that they never died which resulted in possible experimentations that could now take place. In classical and contemporary literature, this word represents the never-ending remembrance of the impact something has made throughout its lifetime. The definition of immortality directly represents the woman of the cells, Henrietta Lacks, and she will never be forgotten in the eyes of the world.

One way Henrietta Lacks is immortal is within the memories and hearts of her loved ones. She was a mother, a wife, a sister, and a friend to many, even people she had no relation to. One of her closest cousin recalls, “‘Hennie made life come alive—bein with her was like bein with fun, … Hennie just love peoples. She was a person that could really make the good things come out of you’” (Skloot 43). As the character describes, Henrietta touched the lives of the ones around her and found her own way into their hearts. She made an impact before dying by being a strong and independent African American who was loving and caring. As long as she was living she always put forth positivity and happiness in her surroundings. Adding on, one of Henrietta’s son, Sonny, mentions, “She liked taking care of people, so it made sense what she did with them cells. I mean, people always say she was really just hospitality, … cook breakfast for everybody, even if it’s twenty of them” (Skloot 159). Henrietta carried out her image by always helping and putting others before herself, which she also continues to do with her cells. With this her legacy and her selfless personality, she continues to aid the world by curing many diseases such as polio. Thus, Henrietta’s immortality is shown with the continuation of her nurturing self to her cells.

Debora Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter also became immortal with her actions and decisions she chose to make during the time The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lackswas being made. She herself states, “‘All the stuff I’m learning,’ she said, ‘it make me realize that I did have a mother, and all the tragedy she went through. It hurts but I wanna know more, … It make me feel closer to them, but I do miss them’” (Skloot 288). This quote explains how Deborah pushed through so much pain and mysteries just to learn more about her underrepresented mother. She dedicated time and effort to help the author discover new information and uncover more secrets about Henrietta’s personal life. Debora is one of the reasons why readers know so much about Henrietta Lacks, not Helen Lane or HeLa, and her story of how her cells were stolen from her. Without her daughter and her connections, he author would not have been able to get as up-close and personal as wanted to.

Henrietta Lacks paved the path for minorities, especially African Americans, towards medical rights such as consent in the presence of a physician. Another one of Henrietta’s children, Zakariyya, expresses, “‘Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask … What really would upset Henrietta is the fact that Dr. Gey never told the family anything – we didn’t know nothing about those cells and he didn’t care’” (Skloot 169). This medical indecently and injustice shows how African Americans were mistreated in hospitals, examination rooms, and operating rooms. The logic behind John Hopkins was that in exchange for medical checkups, the physicians could take some of the patience’s tissue in order to conduct medical research. The author writes, “Like many doctors of his era, TeLinde often used patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge. Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment” (Skloot 30). The underlying problem is that the hospital assumes this exchange and disregards the patience’s consent of using their property as research material. The Lacks’s family was deeply disturbed by John Hopkins specifically with the idea of their mother’s cells being taken without permission and made a ton of money through it, which the family did not receive. This is very ironic due to the fact that some of the family members adopted illnesses that were treatable with the vaccinations made by the HeLa cells, but were too poor to afford it. Due to all of this mishap, the book and awareness of this situation brought justice towards the topic and helped resolve the discrimination for years to come.

In conclusion, Henrietta and Debora became immortal through their actions and impacted individuals for a long time. Their immortality was caused by them causing a change and a positive influence towards their surroundings. Henrietta Lacks specifically was preserved through the hearts of her loved ones and through the progression of racial medical consent. While she was being progressive, Debora made the effort to come out of her comfort zone to help keep her mother’s life alive. Lastly, immortality is something that is amazing in the sense that it will be remembered, praised, and appreciated for a long time.