The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Essay
Henrietta Lacks was a key component behind the groundbreaking discoveries that changed the history of science and medicine forever. Henrietta and the Lacks family tree dates back through generations of plantation workers and slavery. With the time of her story being post Civil War era, I believe it should be highly considered that her consent to medical practice was taken advantage of. Henrietta suffered from cervical cancer. Presently, her cancerous cells turned out to become the first immortal cell line. Due to the scientific practices performed on Henrietta, we now have an name for this cell line, HeLa.
Taking into consideration of Henrietta Lack’s race, her experience at Johns Hopkins hospital was the beginning of the reality behind deeply rooted racial practices. Basically, the two sides that differentiate medical practices are normative ethics and mortality. Everything boils down to these two sides, but Henrietta’s cells were taken without consent. At the time, segregation had just been integrated so there are still questions to be raised at the morality of these medicinal practices. Keeping that in mind, this potentially skewed the decisions made by doctors such as George Gey, who was the first to study Henrietta’s cells in an effort to breed human cells that would regenerate forever. However, Gey obtained her cells from her previous doctors without her consent. This is just merely one example as to why Henrietta’s cells were taken without her knowledge. A Doctor, who works at Johns Hopkins, is looking to discover a new breakthrough in the medical field but abuses Henrietta’s form of consent. The two sides I referred to earlier, pertains to this example very strongly. Although we know doctors as the people whose sole purpose to help whoever comes into their office, it is more complex. The situation of taking Henrietta’s cells seems morally ambiguous due to the fact that doctors are under an oath that states whatever a doctor is doing, it must be good for the patient. However, there is a loophole with this oath as the meaning behind “doctors know best” begins to take on a more metaphorical meaning. Ironically enough, doctors following this code may also feel that their patients should be withheld from certain information as it may not be beneficial. From a scientific standpoint, without Doctors such as Dr. TeLinde and Dr. Gey, taking cells without consent actually benefited our medical field in many ways that could have potentially never happened. But, this method does not meet a moral conduct whatsoever. Even if the actions that took place were only out of best interest for their patients, it still measures up as an act of exploitation to those who were of poverty status or even of African descent.
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Due to the lack of care for African American patients at the time, if Henrietta were to be a wealthy white woman there is no doubt that she would have been treated differently. Obtaining cells for these doctors was done with more of an “under the table” style. They knew that the only way they were going to be able to continue their research in breeding the first line of immortal cells was going to have to be done by obtaining all of the cells that they needed; What better way to do that then by keeping these certain patients out of the loop and look like it was just a huge breakthrough in science. If Henrietta were a wealthy woman, there would be a huge risk at taking her cells without consent as her higher social status could potentially expose the face of science and medicine.
Next, the existence of the HeLa cells were extremely frightening for the Lacks family. Not only were Henrietta’s cells taken without any form of consent but nobody in their family even knew what had taken place until the 1970’s. The only reason it surfaced to the family was due to the fact that doctors wanted to further their research on the rest of her family and their cells. Exploiting the Lacks family yet again, they continue to perform research on Henrietta’s children without their consent and they practically didn’t even understand what they were even studying within their bodies. With the Lacks family coming from generations of plantation and slave workers it was obvious that they lacked the proper knowledge behind the most basic of the whole scheme these doctors were even performing such as what a cell is. To anyone who does not understand what they are being used in science for, especially in Henrietta’s children’s situation, the whole appearance of everything alone would more than likely bring some form of anxiety and confusion.
It is hard to say how Henrietta’s children would have turned out if she had not died so young. With the state of the United States post Civil War, I think that anything could have happened and they would have turned out the same way. That period of time was very rough on African American culture especially in the fashion that Henrietta’s case was studied. I am sure that their mother’s care would have made a different impact on their lives, but with how African Americans were already being treated who is to say that it is Henrietta’s fault that her children turned out the way they did.
I believe the way that the way researchers obtained Henrietta’s cells was not only morally wrong, but dangerous as well. The main reason scientists even wanted to have her cells was for their own profit. In any circumstance, this is morally incorrect, but it also crosses the boundaries of trust and honesty between physicians and their patients. One may argue that the methods utilized in collecting cells without consent was important because without them we would not be where we are today in the science and medical field. However, I do understand that form reasoning, but it lacks basic human ethics and rights. These physicians would actually take pieces of human biology from their patients without telling them what they are doing and/or misconstruing the information as well. After all of the stress they have gone through, the Lacks family rightfully deserves to be financially compensated. For years the research done to Henrietta’s cells were kept from her family, it was not until Doctors wanted to do research on her children that the family had only first heard about it. Without Henrietta’s cells, science and medicine would not be the same. Doctors took pieces of Henrietta’s biology without anyone knowing, including her family. With everything they have since discovered thanks to Henrietta and her children, you would think that financially compensating them would be the least they could do for the family after everything they were put through.
Furthermore, I was surprised when reading what Skloot included in the Afterword regarding the surrounding issues of the collection of human tissue samples. I found Skloot’s take on the whole topic interesting and honestly, quite modest. “Like it or not, we live in a market-driven society, and science is part of that market” (Skloot, 2011). Skloot makes this point in an effort for people to understand that although there are moral ethics we would hope all would abide by, we live in a society that still has money to make. It was interesting for Skloot to note that human tissues really do not hold much financial value. A feeling just quite isn’t enough to justify why humans should be entitled to financial compensation for our bodies, however, if we take a stand back from the market side of our society, we would more than likely value our bodies more. For the reason being that very little of our biology has financial worth, the Lacks family has never filed for compensation for HeLa.
Finally, if I had discovered that my tissue has been removed without my knowledge, I would feel taken back in trusting my physician. Personally, I understand the motives behind benefitting the future of science and humanity, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of taking my own tissue without consent. Thanks to science, we are continuously thriving as a species, however, our basic human rights should not be abused amongst this process. It depends how valuable my cells would be for science in order to determine if I would be okay with giving them up so easily in the name of science. If I am completely healthy and there are no side effects to the research being done, I am all for helping benefit the future, but that needs to be communicated and consented with me before proceeding.