The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Description of Ethical issues on collection of Henrietta cells without her knowledge Essay
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which forms part of Rebecca Skloot’s works, is a detailed description of science. It talks about racial politics that are related to medicine and health interventions. It gives a highlight of Lacks family’s difficult experiences by explaining the story of Henrietta Lacks about the immortal cells called HeLa in the book (Nutting, 2010, Para. 1).
In addition, the book inter-relates ethical issues about medicinal research and science writings. As a further description of the concern of the book, this short paper describes ethical issues relating to collection of Henrietta cells by a doctor without her knowledge or consent.
More often, science provides a record of facts. However, Skloot’s book goes further than this to give bold, deep, and glorious and yet brave revelations. Margonelli (2010) posits, “Skloot confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world” (p.17).
From one view, it is clear that Lacks gave no permission for doctors to collect and tissue culture her cells. When Skloot called Baltimore in search of Lacks’ widower, the immediate recipient of her call yelled, “Get Pop, lady’s on the phone about his wife’s cells” (Skloot, 2010, p.52).
Skloot was later to learn that any call that arrived at the widower’s house was merely an inquiry call about Lacks’ cells. Despite Henrietta’s cells becoming essential for the development of medicinal research on cervix cancer, ethical issues arise since her family feels cheated by John Hopkins. The family they claim that the facility has made much profit out of Lacks’ cells.
Skloot’s work in a big way looks into the emotional and ethical issues relating to the collection of Lacks’ cells without her approval. This places questions about the relationship between the law and ethics in relation to tissue culture. The ability of the Media to influence such relationships is also questioned. In this end, Skloot (2010) explains, “inadvertently careless journalists and researchers violated the family’s privacy by publishing everything from Henrietta’s medical records to the family’s genetic information” (p.118).
However, even though one can treat this as Skloot’s opinion, the scientific researches attract big ethical debates. Deporah, Henrietta’s daughter perhaps well exemplifies these concerns when she claims, “Truth be told, I cannot get mad at science,…But I will not lie, I would like some health insurance so I do not get to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make” (Skloot, 2010, p.198).
Additionally, Deborah experiences lifelong struggles trying to understand both the existence of her mother’s cells and science, which facilitated their existence. This shows that she undergoes some emotional turmoil attributed to medical research discoveries such as tissue culture (Nutting, 2010, Para. 2).
Conclusively, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is more than the expression of Henrietta’s family struggles with emotional and ethical concerns of science. It also questions the ability of science to neglect messy and careless human ability to provide materials used in scientific research.
Nevertheless, on the other side, scientists will argue that Henrietta cells are not supposed to be related to Henrietta, the person from whom they were obtained. To scientists, this would make science easier to do. Perhaps this also justifies why the doctor took cells out of Henrietta without her permission to do tissue culture on them.
Margonelli, L. (2010). Eternal life. The network times book review, 1(1), 16-17.
Nutting, L. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks: review. Retrieved from <https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6493208-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks>.
Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway, Manhattan: Crown Press.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by R.Skloot Essay
The story of Henrietta Lacks highlights the importance of ethical principles in scientific research. Moreover, it shows that modern scholars have to pay much more attention to the rights of an individual. It should be noted that the cells of this woman were used to develop an immortal cell line, and it was important for many subsequent studies (Skloot, 2011).
Moreover, she did not give an informed consent to this procedure. This paper is aimed at discussing various questions that are related to this case. Overall, it is possible to argue that the rights of a person should be the top priority for scientists, and the interests of subjects or patients should be considered first. This is one of the main arguments that can be made.
First of all, there are several reasons why the researchers did not ask Henrietta’s permission. At that time, the activities of scientists were not closely regulated, and many ethical aspects of their work were disregarded. For example, one should mention that such a concept as informed consent emerged only in 1957, and it was six years after the death of Henrietta (Skloot, 2011, p. 132).
This is one of the aspects that can be identified. Secondly, Henrietta Lacks was a member of the African-American community, and this population was not sufficiently empowered at least in terms of civic rights. Therefore, the researchers did not expect to face any legal challenges.
So, one has to speak about such factors as the legal environment of that period and racial discrimination. This is one of the reasons why scientists did not ask Henrietta for her permission. In their opinion, it was not even necessary.
In turn, the relatives of Henrietta also did not know anything about the use of her cells for various studies and experiements. It should be noted that these people could demand for financial compensation, and these demands could pose some difficulties for governmental organizations and private companies that might use HeLa cells for pharmaceutical studies (Brodwin, 2000, p. 68).
This issue is particularly important if one takes into account that these cells were instrumental for a great number of studies. To a great extent, the relatives of Henrietta Lacks could be regarded as the heirs who could ask for a certain share of the profit.
Again, it is possible to argue that the socio-economic status of African-American community can explain the actions of those people who used HeLa cells. They did not believe that the relatives of Henrietta Lacks could uphold their rights in the court. This is one of the main issues that should be considered.
In my opinion, it is unethical to take the cells of Henrietta Lacks and derive profit from their use without asking for this woman for her permission. In this context, the term ethical can be interpreted as something that complies with the rules established within a particular group or community (Rogelberg, 2008, p. 34). There are some of the norms that have been established in some community.
In particular, an individual has an unalienable right to his/her body, and any use of it should be based on the informed agreement of the person (Rogelberg, 2008, p. 34). More importantly, an individual is entitled to financial compensation provided that his/her property is used for commercial purposes (Rogelberg, 2008, p. 34).
It should be taken into consideration that HeLa cells were important for the development of many drugs such as polio vaccine (Brodwin, 2000, p. 68). Therefore, I think that the descendents of Henrietta should receive compensation. The main question is how the amount of this compensation can be determined.
It seems that this reimbursement should be a certain percentage of profits that were derived from the research involving the cell of Henrietta. This reimbursement should be provided by both governmental and private organizations that relied on this genetic material. It seems that such an approach to this ethical dilemma can be quite justified.
The unfolding of this story produced a profound effect on the lives of her husband and children. For example, her daughter Deborah began to think about the danger of cancer and the idea that her own children could live their mother (Skloot, 2011, p. 135). This is the thought that he desperately tried to avoid.
One can argue that this sensation can be damaging for a person. On the whole, they were more affected by the disturbing memories of Henrietta Lacks. To a great extent, these events produced a disturbing effect on these people. This is one the main aspects that cannot be identified.
This example suggests that in many cases, people do not have complete control over their bodies. Still, I would not object if my tissues had been used for some biological research, especially if in this way, they can find a cure for some disease or virus. Nevertheless, I would insist that a scientist or physician asks for my consent because it means that he/she respects my civic rights.
As it has been said before, the interests of a patient or research participant should the first priority for the scientists, even if they are on the verge of making a breakthrough discovery. At this point, I cannot tell whether I will necessarily demand for my compensation because I understand that I will not be contributing significantly to this study, its design, or analysis of data. So, it is not likely that I will insist on any significant reimbursement.
It is possible to draw parallels between these case Henrietta Lacks and the problem of abortion. In each of these situations, one can speak about such a concept as a person’s right to his/her body. One of the questions that are often debated is the extent to which a person has control over his/her body. However, there are several important differences. In particular, when speaking about abortion, one should remember about the fetus.
The main question that should be considered is whether this creature can be viewed as a human being. In contrast, Henrietta Lacks had full control over her body. This is one of the main differences that should be considered by legislators and researchers since these people are responsible for maintaining the rights of patients and subjects.
On the whole, these examples suggest that scientific inquiry involves ethical choices that people have to make. The case of Henrietta Lacks shows that in the middle of the twentieth century, the rights of individuals were not properly upheld by the state. Moreover, the needs of her family were disregarded. This problem was particularly aggravated by racial discrimination.
Brodwin, P. (2000). Biotechnology and culture: bodies, anxieties, ethics. Blooomington: Indiana University Press.
Rogelberg, S. (2008). Handbook of Research Methods in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Boston: John Wiley & Sons.
Skloot, R. (2011). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway.
Faith vs. Ethics in Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Essay (Book Review)
The non-fiction book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reveals a story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose cancer cells were removed right after her death from cervix cancer. The book reveals contradictory issues related to medical ethics, science, and legal aspects. The author of the book, Rebecca Skloot, presents the life of a real-life woman, as well as the influence of poverty, race, and science on medical research. In addition, Skloot clearly describes the science and traces racial underpinnings of medical politics.
The writer also highlights the story of HeLa cells development, as well as the role of an African American woman in medical and scientific discoveries, including cloning, polio vaccine, and vitro fertilization. Overall, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a story of a sophisticated confrontation between ethics, medicine, and ethics, as well as a collision between faith healing and discovery. Thus, HeLa cells of Henrietta Lacks were considered the most significant contribution to science and microbiology. The woman, however, was not related to medicine and science. In February 1951, Mrs Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer and she died some months later.
Before discussing aspects of scientific discovery and healthcare improvement, ethical concerns of the case should be addressed as well. Painful experiences of scientific research represented in the book introduce the exploration of the history of ethics within a context of scientific research in the United States. Moreover, the non-fiction story is dedicated to exploring people’s perceptions and prejudices with regard to scientists, science, and the research community.
In this respect, Skloot brilliantly illustrates the account of the Lacks family – both past and present – is strongly connected with dark history of scientific experimentation on African American people, as well as to the emergence of bioethics and legal constraints. In the first part of the book called Life, the author traces the Lacks family’s emotional suffering, including the changing ethical and legal patterns related to the collection of tissues, as well as to careless researchers and journalists who infringed the laws and interfered with the family’s privacy. To highlight the paradox, Skloot refers to the experiences of Henrietta’s daughter Debora:
“Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science because it helps people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore…But I won’t live, I would like some health insurance so I don’t get to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make” (256).
The spirit of faith, which opposes to the prerogatives of science, is promulgated by the author in her “lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible” (Skloot 7). In such a way, the author wants to emphasize that science fails to adhere to the most primitive principles of ethics and morality for the sake of discoveries and inventions. In the course of development of HeLa cells project the Lacks family becomes more aware of the legality and ethicality of the given research, as well as their attitude and outlook on science and faith.
Apart from scientific and family issues, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reflects a critique of scientific discovery that focuses on neglecting the messy origin of human and its materials. In this respect, Skloot writes, “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from” (216). Focusing only on medical purposes of microbiology, science relieved itself from the responsibilities and duties imposed by the rules of morality and ethics, which were not considered yet during those times.
In the book, much concern is connected with the way Henrietta expressed her attitude toward her illness, as well as how the members of her family considered Henrietta’s serious diseases. To emphasize the deep faith into Henrietta as personality, Sklook writers, “Hennie didn’t fade away, you know, her looks, her body, telling that she wasn’t gonna be alive no more” (64). Thus, the mystery of the Lacks family’s visions, perceptions, and attitudes contradicted the existing views on medicine and science. In the book, the author emphasizes, “…She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” (162). Deep faith into the immortality and legacy of asking for health insurance undermines the legacy of scientific inventions based on ignorance of lacks family.
Henrietta’s family, thus, was unaware of the “immortality” of Henrietta’s cells until twenty years had passed after her death. The author introduces evidence of scientists using Henrietta’s children and husband cells without formal consent. Despite the fact that the cell project had introduced a multimillion-dollar business selling human biological materials, Lacks family never received a cent of the profits.
As a result, Skloot becomes more concerned with lives and experiences of the Lacks family, particularly that of Henrietta’s daughter Debora, who was really shocked to learn about the existence of her mother’s cells. Indeed, she was overwhelmed with questions about her mother. Debora longed to know everything that related to scientific research, as well as to the peculiarity of her mother’s cells. She also raised questions about cloning and she was interested in the fate of her sister Elsie. With regard to the above-posed questions, the ethical issues raised in the book are interconnected and extremely complicated.
Since the death of Henrietta and discovery of “immortal cells”, science has experienced significant advances and overshadowed people’s ability to understand whether it is right or wrong to use human cells as a biological material that could save lives of other people and that could bring in significant achievement to medical world. In 1980s, the practices similar to those occurred to Henrietta Lacks, were also help with other people, without their knowledge and consent. However, this was the first time when the family of the patient filed a lawsuit and the California Supreme Court upheld the decision to provide patients with the right to protect their issues from external intrusion and unlawful intrusions for scientific purposes.
What is more importantly, the court recognized that the doctors should reveal their actual financial and economic interests, as well as consider legal issues before removing cells and other tissues from their patients. In addition, the legal system has gradually evolved to have introduced new limitations and patient protections to increase legal and ethical responsibility that should be imposed on doctors. Several decades later, the RAND Corporation estimated the profits received by American laboratories received over 307 million samples of tissues from 178 million people (Skloot 5).
Thus, the author notes that the question of obtaining form consent from the patients and their families to store cells has not been revealed yet, as well as the question of profitability of tissues research and distribution. Nowadays, HeLa cells weight is estimated as over 50 million metric tones (Skloot 4). Thus, discoveries have been introduced, careers have been promoted, profits have been advanced, and human lives have been returned. After two decades of ignorance, the Lacks family received compensation, as well as recognition for Henrietta’s cells legacy. The acknowledgment of the health insurance was due to the emergence of the concept of informed consent that evolved in medical sphere.
Aside from the legal and ethical issues, there is much mystery about the immortality of human cells that did not die like cells of other people. Skloot has initiated an extensive research related to Henrietta’s genome and a combination of diseases to find answers to this problem, but she has failed to resolve the issues. Within these perspectives, HeLa cell line cannot be explained within scientific perspectives, but with the help of the information from beyond. At this point, the author refers to the faith of healing and immortality of Henrietta’s soul.
This is where scientific understanding and religion faith collide and highlight the boundaries of the explicable and the non-explicable. Religious power is strongly associated with the beliefs of the Lacks family. Their views on man’s destination related to the assumption that “man brought nothing into this world and he’ll carry nothing out. Sometimes we care about stuff too much. We worry when there’s nothing to worry about” (Skloot 264). The secret of immortality, therefore, relied heavily on the concept of faith and commitment to religion.
Faith perspectives are also revealed in the following passage: “Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense” (Skloot 296). Thus, much content has been expanded through religious prism, which is also discussed in the book as the concepts of heavenly bodies and soul cleansing. While analyzing the last part of the book, it can be understood that Henrietta Lacks and Deborah were committed to faith. In fact, religion and faith have always been treated as the ones opposed to science. Moreover, the author emphasizes that faith have played a vital role in healing and health in African-American culture.
In conclusion, it should be stressed that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reflects a story intertwined with sophisticated experiences related to science, faith, religion, and medical ethics. The author has managed to explore interesting and fascinating topics which touch on the eternal confrontation between science and faith. On the on hand, the immortality of HeLa cells is considered a phenomenal scientific discovery that has introduced significant advances to medical sphere as well.
On the other hand, the book reflects the matters of faith and religion that explains the immortality and uniqueness of cells, which could not bed explained by science. Finally, the book is also a reflection on the sufferings and hard experiences of the Lacks family that had been living in ignorance for two decades. Thus, the author is more concerned with the concept of ethics, morality, and faith, as well as their impact on the development of science.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. US: Crown, 2010. Print.
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.