Example Of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks Book Review
Type of paper: Book Review
Topic: Medicine, Family, Cancer, Consent, Sexual Abuse, Ethics, Theory, Science
The HeLa cell line is the aspect at the center of this book. The story of HeLa started way back in 1951. At this time Henrietta Lacks, aged 31 and a mother of five, earlier diagnosed with aggressive and severe cervical cancer, was booked into Johns Hopkins Hospital to receive treatment. While on treatment, the physicians removed a slice of Lack’s tumor without letting her know this. After that, they sent the slice of tumor to a hospital laboratory in which a researcher known as George Gey had for many years tried to grow human cells outside the body of humans but had failed on all occasions. “HeLa” was the marking put on the cells to mean Henrietta Lacks, as was the identification protocol in this laboratory. After this, the research put “HeLa” cells onto chicken blood clots in test tubes and used a culture medium to cover them in order to determine their potential to grow. Gey was able to culture the cells, and they have been critical in revolutionizing research.
During her visit to the hospital, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. However, cells from the cancer tumor were removed to be used in medical research without her consent or knowledge in direct violation of the existing medical rules and procedures. In the course of medical research, Dr. George Gey discovered that Henrietta’s cells were different; they behaved differently in a way that he had never seen before. The cells could be kept alive and grow (Skloot 94). Cells that had previously been obtained from other sources had the tendency to survive only a few days before their eventual death. The sample of cells from Henrietta’s tumor showed a very different pattern from earlier samples.
HeLa’s cells have been used extensively in uncovering radiation effects, viruses, and cancer secrets, developing the vaccine for polio. Consequently, the cells led to massive improvements in mapping of genes, cloning and in vitro fertilization. Skloot notes that black scientists and technicians, a majority of them women, used cells from Henrietta to save millions of Americans' lives, a majority being white. This they did on the same campus and at the same time that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study (Skloot 97).With the numerous benefits that have accrued due to use of Henrietta’s cells in medical research, her family had remained in the dark about their existence for about 25 years since she died. The family learned about the existence of the cells when scientists were carrying out investigations about HeLa began to use her children’s and husband’s specimens without consent. Moreover, the family gained nothing from the multi-million dollars obtained through the selling of these biological materials obtained from her.
The HeLa cells issue raises many ethical concerns both in the medical research world and in the ordinary world. In the medical research world, it is unethical, immoral, illegal and deplorable to conduct research on a person without informing the subjects being used in the study. The removal of cells to be used in medical research from Henrietta’s tumor without telling her or her family was a violation of the rights of a patient. While she is dead, astonishingly, a part of her remains alive. It was only ethically right for the doctors to seek her consent before proceeding with this. This ethical issue played out in the case against Chester Southam, who had intended to inject healthy persons and others suffering from cancer with the HeLa cells without their consent. Upon investigation of this violation, the need for the supervision of medical research and the necessity of acquiring informed consent was spurred (Skloot 127-136). The medical researchers in Henrietta’s incident violated the classical ethical theory of deontology. The theory states that people should do what is right. Doing what is right is the beginning point in developing morally upright societies.
Moreover, the book explores the issue of ownership of tissues obtained from people for medical research. Currently, storing of body tissues and blood is a procedure that is not legally bound on consent. The persistence question about this situation is whether a person from whom cells and tissues have been removed still claims their ownership. HeLa cells have been extensively used in medical research, and a lot of money has been realized from the selling the cells. The blatant deprivation of the Lack’s family of any financial support from the sale of HeLa’s cells is wrong. The right, ethical, and good thing to do is to ensure that the family gains from these sells. This deprivation has caused Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, to bring to the fore the potential disregard of the classical ethical theory of ethics of care. This theory envisions that caring is always number one, and harm should never be done. She consciously put forth these questions: “Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why could her children not afford health insurance” (Skloot 139).
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown, 2010