Henrietta Lacks: Immortal cells and Racial Conflicts



Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer, had an extremely influential role  in the field of medicine, from the polio vaccine to cancer research.  Her contribution, however, is embroiled in controversy because she was used but had given no consent.  What makes this story a little tricky however, was the fact that she had contributed her cells, later to found to be immortal, and then died.  The ethical questions about this story continue to this day especially when looking at ownership of your own cells before and after your death.

Henrietta Lacks met her untimely demise by a severe cases of cervical cancer.  When she was close to death the doctors overseeing her case took some of her cervical cancer cells, without her permission or her family’s permission or knowledge, to run typical tests.  However, during these tests and to all the doctors’ surprise, these cells were immortal, meaning that these cells could continuously split and reproduce, unlike normal cells that will eventually die off.  This discovery led to a billion-dollar medical industry and many medical advances.   This success story came to a jarring halt when  a journalist, Rebecca Skloot, made an effort to track down Lacks’s surviving family.  In her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the journalist revealed that not only did the family never see any of the profits of an industry based on their mother’s cells, but also that these individuals had been without adequate healthcare and living in poverty.

Though not performed on a living human, these cells represent a laboratory that is riddled with controversy.  These controversies, ranging from the lack of information and compensation that the family received to the fact that permission was never received, lead to a couple different ethical questions.  And many of these questions boil down a person’s ownership of their individual cells.  The doctors and scientists that worked on this case explained away their use of Lack’s cells by saying that they were part of a tumor that was going to be removed anyway.  That Lacks did not have any say, and by extension did not need to give consent, after the cells had been removed from her body.  This is in an effort to show that the importance of the cells and the advancements that were developed from these cells were completely justified to do what they did.

However, some of these arguments do not take into account that consent was never received for the use of these cells.  Even though they were being removed, consent should have been given for test not related to her cervical cancer analysis, even if they were going to be thrown out after these tests.  These cells still belonged to Lacks, and after her death, her family.  I found this reminiscent to when dead bodies were used for cadaver lab without consent in the previous unit. This lack of respect for the dead is an interesting theme, and I wonder if this behavior would have been acceptable if she had come from a better background.

Their other argument, saying that the discoveries were worth it, dehumanizes Henrietta Lacks, and tries to make lack of consent acceptable.  These articles also reminded me of the reoccurring theme that blacks were afraid of going to hospitals and being seen by white doctors.

In other cases, the human body was being violated and mistreated.  This case dictates a scenario where your cells were used without your consent and without your knowledge.  The ethical issues surrounding this demonstrate the strain that occurred between white doctors, and by extension white scientists, and their black patients, that were often seen as subjects in a study rather than patients.

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