Henrietta Lacks’ life and death

The Arguments at the Heart of Henrietta’s Story

Numerous vital arguments are presented in Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Although remaining a relatively unbiased observer for a majority of her book, Skloot does highlight many issues, one being the argument against detaching humanity from genetic material. Skloot’s main intention is to  uncover and humanize the mysterious woman behind the HeLa cells. Furthermore, Skloot aims to expose the moral and ethical concerns that have arisen as a result of the use of these cells.  In this, it seems she succeeds.

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables

A World Where the Dog Eats the Dog…

In the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Monsieur Thernadier and his friends go through the streets of Paris stealing anything and everything they can—including trinkets possessed by dead soldiers in the Parisian sewers.  He tells the audience, “It’s a world where the dog eats the dog…”  (Kretzmer). Hugo’s story takes place in the nineteenth century, but Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks shows that this “dog eats dog” mentality still exists. Skloot advances her argument against this dogma by humanizing the HeLa cells, specifically by spinning the tale of HeLa’s life.

A Catalyst for Disovery

HeLa cells have acted as catalysts for the discovery of the polio vaccine, for the perfecting of cell culturing, and for countless other medical and scientific breakthroughs.  However, Skloot’s book brings to life the woman behind HeLa, Henrietta Lacks.  She describes Henrietta’s less-than-ideal life growing up near Roanoke, Virginia—how Henrietta and her cousins had to pick tobacco in their grandfather’s fields and how they made fires out of old shoes because the shoes were supposed to keep away mosquitoes.  Skloot narrates Henrietta’s intimacy with her cousin, then husband, Day and how Henrietta was only fourteen when she bore her first child.  The author also refers to Day’s unfaithfulness in sleeping with other women and then giving Henrietta sexually transmitted diseases.

Through these and many more examples, Rebecca Skloot portrays Henrietta Lacks not only as the woman who became science’s  godsend, but also as a person.  Implicitly, Skloot argues, especially by humanizing Henrietta, against the doctors’ taking and selling Henrietta’s cervix cells. This leads into another issue.

The People Behind the Research

Henrietta’s family believed various stories about the cause of her death, such as the notion that it was the result of medical experimentation. Although such a conclusion may be farfetched to many people today, one must take into account the time in which Henrietta was born. The  era  in which she lived was one in which racism was still prevalent, medical ethics were quite different, and technology was not very advanced.  Skloot explores both the world of poverty and lack of education in which Henrietta lives and the world of medicine and science into which she steps. One of Skloot’s main aims is to highlight the people behind the scientific research. Through this narrative Skloot implicitly argues that scientists have forgotten humanity and  morality due to their hunger for success. The description of Henrietta’s childhood in Chapter Two is a broad recreation of related facts and events. The descriptions here help the reader imagine the times and setting of Henrietta’s early life. Every story is used as backup for Skloot’s argument that there are meaningful lives behind science.

Through Chapter 10, one senses fictional accounts of situations that are actually quite factual. To some extent, the author gives the reader the impression that this is a novel.  This is because Skloot writes in the first person and tries to describe in the colorful language of Henrietta and her family the background for the factual information. Throughout the book, Skloot attempts to put humanity back into the HeLa cells. In fixing their origin as Henrietta’s cells, she makes the reader move away from the cold impersonal nature of science and research.

Ignorance is Confusion

Another ethical question arises as a result of the injustice Henrietta’s family  experienced. The idea that ignorance is bliss seems far-fetched in the context of this  book. The events portrayed in the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family show that ignorance is confusion, that anger is often a basis for racism and moral ambiguity. Henrietta and her family never benefited from the research on her cells either financially or in terms of health benefits despite the many uses found by scientists for the cells.

George O. Gey

Two Different Worlds

Skloot also  suggest that there is some distance between the scientists and their need to control the outcomes of their experiments  and the wider application of their scientific results in the real world. Stating that a scientist like George Gey “didn’t like the fact that HeLa was now completely out of his control,” Skloot shows the irony between two different worlds and the points of view supporting both positions. This irony is also reflected by the fact that the family behind the HeLa cells was completely cut off from the decision and fate of this process and did not participate in the tremendous financial rewards the labs as well as hospitals enjoyed.

Skloot appears to demand compassion and mercy be molded into the base of science. Skloot’s attempt to stir up opinions and arguments from many people is to insist on change. She also clearly raises the legal and moral issue involved — that is, whether or not a dying person or the family can prevent the exploitation of her cells without her consent. Even without the existence of privacy laws, no hospital has the right to use a dying person’s organs as  it wishes unless those organs are donated. Skloot expands on this issue in the afterward.

Bringing two main issues to the reader’s attention, consent laws and entitlement to money, Skloot argues that for most people, “knowing if and how their tissues are being used in research is a far bigger issue than profiting from them.” Skloot tries to convey the urgency behind resolving the laws governing the use of genetic material in order to ensure a worldwide ethical benefit. The idea of an ethical death is also explored. Many instances are prime examples of the struggle to find where the difference between law and ethics resides. Skloot brings up the question of whether our medical laws reflect or contrast with ethical laws. Skloot does this by telling the story of Henrietta. Skloot highlights Henrietta’s death by explaining how her tissue was taken and how it is being used. Even though Henrietta has been dead for many years, the fact is that our medical practices today still do not have set rules regarding tissue samples.

How can one trust doctors?

Henrietta’s family feels betrayed by doctors. Day and Sonny explain, “He said he didn’t want doctors cutting on him like they did Henrietta. Sonny felt the same way; his doctors said he needed an angioplasty, but he’d swore he’d never do it” (159). How can one trust doctors to discern whether they are making ethical choices regarding our genetic material?. Laws must be put in place to ensure that our society does not fall victim to what some would call unethical medical practice. In order to discover what society deems moral, we should create laws that reflect our principles. Skloot’s book shows us that it is very easy to abuse and exploit patients. Families and overall society are greatly affected. Rebecca Skloot tells Henrietta’s story in order to raise questions about how our society is developing and slowly losing its moral standards. Skloot expresses that as a society we need to create laws to protect ourselves from being exploited.

Skloot explains that through medical progress comes a difficult question. If there are those who find certain medical practice immoral, why don’t the laws in our society reflect that?  The implicit and explicit arguments found throughout Skloots chapters help lead her readers to their own opinions on moral and ethical rights. Through Skloot’s wonderful book, we have seen how HeLa cells enabled great progress in medicine and have left a resounding impact on our consciousness.

More information

For more information on Henrietta Lacks as well as her impact on the world, please visit the following: “Henrietta’s Dance“ and “Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues” from Johns Hopkins Magazine and “Wonder Woman” from the Baltimore City Paper.

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