Analysis Of Finding Morality In Immortality In Henrietta Lacks

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Finding Morality in Immortality: a Racial Discourse Analysis

Henrietta Lacks, better known as HeLa to many, revolutionized the world of medicine without having an even basic understanding of science. While still being treated for cervical cancer in 1951, she was told by the head of tissue-culture research, George Gey, “your cells will make you immortal,” and in a way he absolutely was right. However, it was not Henrietta that would become immortal, rather HeLa and the legacy those cells would create. Social capital, as explained by Pierre Bourdieu, is “the sum of resources...that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of...institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.” (Bourdieu,
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As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says, “Human beings were not human beings in their eyes. They were abstractions.” While this quote is about Nazi doctors and their human experiments, one can easily apply this to the case of Henrietta and her cells. No one cared about Henrietta, the black woman who unknowingly gave her cells to science, but instead they cared immensely about HeLa, the cells that launched a multi-billion dollar industry and would contribute themselves endlessly to medical research. The woman who these cells came from remained unidentified for decades and the family she left behind was living in poverty. For the scientific community, endless cell life was huge, but it would mean nothing to her family until 1973 when they first learned that Henrietta’s cells were still alive. This new information and unfamiliarity of scientific jargon about Henrietta was not easily understood by the Lacks, and it took quite some time for someone to actually sit down with the family and explain to them that their mother was not alive and being tested on, but instead her cells were. Even when researchers or reporters did try to talk to her family, many of them expressed how they were sorry for their mothers lack of recognition or for the difficulties the Lacks had to face, yet still wanted information for their own gain. This can be seen as similar to the middle class mindset of trying to identify themselves and their research as better than truly they are while also differentiating themselves from the individuals below who were involved in the exploitation of Henrietta’s cells. The lack of understanding incorporated with an absence of explanation perfectly exemplifies the concept of human beings as abstractions in light of race. If the Lacks family was white, would it have taken as long for them to understand what exactly was being done to
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