This novel illustrates Skloot’s footsteps that uncover the truth behind Henrietta Lacks, whose cells are “immortal”, which launched a medical revolution. Skloot introduces her obsession with Henrietta Lacks by saying “I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering […] growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body” [Skloot 2]. As one of the chapters quotes, “Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920.” [Skloot 18]. She went to Johns Hopkins Hospital claiming that she has a knot inside her womb, but the doctors did not take any action. After her son Joe was born, she goes to the hospital and starts radium treatment.
One of the major themes of her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is consent. If she didn’t feel strongly about it, why would she spend years of her life researching and writing a book? Likewise, in Skloot’s chapter titled “A Miserable Specimen,” Skloot talks about how while Henrietta’s cells were thriving in Gey’s lab, Henrietta was in pain from cancer and the treatments (Skloot 63-66). She also states that everyone she talked to and all the records she looked at showed that George Gey—the doctor who discovered the immortality of Henrietta’s cells—never spoke with Henrietta about her cells. The only person who claims that Gey talked to Henrietta was one of his colleagues.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, was published in 2010. The book is non-fiction and discusses the life of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who developed cervical cancer and passed away in 1951. Although Henrietta passed, her cancer cells remained immortal, were saved by researchers and doctors, and used for numerous studies, medicines, and cancer research. Although the subject of the book is very scientific in nature, Skloot uses very accessible language so that many people can comprehend the issues the book discusses. Skloot retrieved information for the book by spending time with Henrietta’s family, most notably Henrietta’s daughter Deborah who provided Skloot with information in her journal.
Soon enough, Henrietta went to Johns Hopkins Medical Center to get this check and learned that she had cervical cancer. But here is where the problem arises, Henrietta gave full consent for her cancer treatment at Hopkins, but she never gave consent for the extraction and use of her cells. During her first treatment TeLinde, the doctor treating Henrietta, removed 2 sample tissues: one from her tumor and one from healthy cervical tissue, and then proceeded to treat Henrietta, all the while no one knowing that Hopkins had obtained tissue samples from Henrietta without her consent. These samples were later handed to ... ... middle of paper ... ...ical necessities and furthermore cannot trust any doctor anymore because people in Hopkins took her tissues and cells and exploited them. HeLa cells were one of the greatest medical inventions that came about for the scientific field and yet the woman behind this medical feat is not fully remembered and honored.
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.
Her family was never informed about what had been accomplished with the use of her cells. The Lacks family has not received anything from the cell line to this day, although their mother’s cells have been bought and sold by many. This bestseller tells the stories of HeLa and traces the history of the cell while highlighting the ethical and legal issues of the research. Henrietta’s name is associated with HeLa cells after a doctor took her cells without her knowing (the name derives from the first two letters of her first and last names). It is told that George Gey, a cancer researcher at Hopkins was longing to study cancer cells however, the method failed because the cells were studied outside of the body and died.
One excerpt in the novel states “From the moment the Collier’s article appeared until the seventies, the woman behind the HeLa cells would be known most often as Helen Lane, and sometimes as Helen Larson, but never as Henrietta Lacks. And because of that, her family had no idea her cells were alive.” (Skloot 109). This clearly depicts a major bioethical issue in that a pseudonym was created in order to throw off researchers, the scientific community, and the public from who the cells were obtained from. It is speculated that Gey did this just so he would not be punished for the unlawful obtainment of Henrietta’s cells, or that he did not want the Lacks family to ever known that these were Henrietta’s cells. Nonetheless, as the reader finds out more about Henrietta’s life, they realize how caught up the scientists were in a lie, and scheming so that nobody would catch them in their wrongdoings and deceit of
But at what cost? Award-winning science writer Rebecca Skloot tells Henrietta’s story in her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and investigates the impact that this had on her family after her death. Skloot compares the difference between the medical view of HeLa cells and her family’s view of Henrietta’s body. George Gey detached all humanity from Henrietta’s tissues, but when her family found out about this years later, they believed that her soul could not rest. Skloot argues that the scientists had no right taking Henrietta’s cells and reveals... ... middle of paper ... ... were given to journalist Michael Gold, who published them without the family’s consent.
Although doctors there agreed to examine these patients, it is questionable how thorough and genuine they were throughout the examination. In 1950, Henrietta gave birth to her youngest daughter Deborah, and by January of 1951 she had a full-blown cancerous tumor in her cervix that no doctor previously noticed. Many of the doctors at Hopkins had the same ideology; if patients were treated for free in the public ward, then it was fair to use them for research as a form of payment. Unbeknownst to Henrietta, her doctor took a sample of her cancerous cervical cells and passed then onto a Dr. George Gey without hesitation. Dr. Gey had attempted to grow human cells outside of the body for years.
These cells were then made into the immortal cell line that has been used widely in research. The unfortunate part of the situation was while scientists were profiting from their work with the HeLa cells, Lacks’ family was living in poverty without proper health insurance or the knowledge of Henrietta’s contribution to science. The case of Henrietta Lacks draws attention to the bioethical issues of informed consent, beneficence, not using people as a means to an end, and spreading knowledge. The primary ethical debate that arose from the discussion of HeLa cells is the issue of informed consent. Lacks and her family were not told of the cells taken from her body until more than 20 years after Lacks had passed away.