Book Review of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Updated: Nov 11, 2022
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From her first diagnoses, there was something uncanny about the cancer cells on Henrietta Lacks’ cervix. Before taking Lacks life in 1951, they took on a life of their own. HeLa (named from the initials two letters of her first and last name) cells were removed during a biopsy without Lack’s or her family’s authorization, they were then multiplied in a John Hopkin’s lab and were the first cells to have ever done so thus being known as the first line of “immortal cells”.

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HeLa cells became incredibly popular and are thought to be one of the most important contributions to science and medicine. Scientists around the world were freely offered HeLa samples to conduct research through Hopkins labs. Soon after, the world’s first cell production facility was churning out 6 trillion HeLa cells per week. These cells later were found to have contaminated other cultures with anything they encountered and still do causing several million dollars in damage each year. HeLa cells were crucial in medical research from developing the polio vaccine, radiation therapy, leukemia treatment, flu vaccine, and even going to space. In the meantime, Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American who had once been a tobacco farmer, tended her five children and suffered scarring from radiation medications in the clinic’s “colored” ward. In the 70s her identity was revealed and her family found out about the vital role their mother played in biomedical research.

In the book, Skloot is adamant that “donating” or “contributing” tissues suggests assent with respect to patient or family. It’s a fundamental necessity of moral logical research when human subjects are included, something that we presently underestimate because of things like the Nuremburg Code and the Helsinki Declaration. In Henrietta’s day, the possibility that a patient had ultimate authority over his or her body and the privilege to self-assurance was not all that plainly enunciated. It is argued how scientist put these cells to work in an unethical and problematic matter building careers and fortunes off Henrietta cells without her or family’s consent or knowledge until decades later. Scientist believe monetary value held on tissues interfere with research as people will uphold their tissues and cells rather than “donate” these tissues to science.

The usage of Henrietta’s cells has put people into two different philosophical camps: Utilitarianism and Ethics of Care The ethical theory known as utilitarianism is an influential moral theory in which actions are morally permissible if and only if they produce as much or net happiness or good. Meanwhile, ethics of care “is the ethical system that defines good as meeting the needs of others and preserving and enriching relationship” it is known as feminine morality as women in all societies known to man are the child bearers and seem to have a greater sensitivity to issues of care (Ethics of Care, 2018).

With a utilitarianism approach, it is argued that the benefit that came out of HeLa cells makes it a “good” event as millions potentially billions of people lives have been made better due to both her “donation” and biomedical research. This is because there were significantly more valuable outcomes from the choice of the Hopkin’s doctor’s choice than negative, and utilitarianism depends on those results alone. Moreover, in the year 1951 there were no laws prohibiting the usage of Mrs. Lack’s cells without her consent so no laws were broken.

Ethics of Care is another ethical approach that can be used when discussing HeLa cells theory is founded on natural human nature to care for those who are most vulnerable from the ill, the hurt, and a newborn child. Simply put what is felt is right is right and what is felt is wrong is wrong. Henrietta autonomy was not taken into consideration and was violated in today’s world as she did not participate in the decision making of her treatment and was not given significant information on her condition. She had little choice as to where she sought care as she was a an African-American woman will little to no income The cancer cells which proceeded to wind up the HeLa cell culture were not just a side-effect of her treatment. They were not remaining from medical procedure intended to support her. They were examples taken expressly (to the specialists) for research, and this ought to have been conveyed to her. She should have been given the choice of declining the system. The manners by which the specialists and society all in all managed Henrietta and whatever is left of the Lacks family neglected to propel their respect, and neglected to give them equity, two increasingly present day morals.

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Book Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (2021, Mar 01). Retrieved from