The first section of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks contains real instances in which many of the topics we have discussed about ethical problems in medical practice arise. One instance where many dilemmas were extremely clear to me was discussed at the beginning of chapter eight when Henrietta felt that the cancer was metastasizing in her body. Lacks repeatedly told doctors that she was not doing well, first feeling discomfort and then pain but they continually examined her and reported that she was fine. A few weeks after the first complaint however, doctors discovered an inoperable mass on Henrietta’s pelvic wall causing her so much pain and ceasing her ability to urinate and walk. Skloot, the author, reminds readers that benevolent deception was extremely common during this time particularly for black patients being treated at public wards. While there is no way to ensure that the financial and class relations that arose for Henrietta at Johns Hopkins played a role in her treatment (or lack thereof), research has demonstrated that black patients were hospitalized later, received less pain medication, and had higher mortality rates than white patients of her time.
At the time Henrietta sought treatment, doctors may very well have been practicing paternalism by not relaying to her the terminal status of her cancer. However, I would argue against the plausible beneficence enacted. While I understand at the time it was common practice to not inform patients of illness because of the fear they may become desolate during the limited time they will live, in this instance patient autonomy should have definitely been a priority. If Henrietta knew that she only had a limited amount of time left, she may have spent more time with her family or put aside things for her children to remember her with. Also, the topic of healthcare injustice is extremely pertinent in this situation and is likely the true reason for why Lacks was not treated promptly, not merely doctors practicing an outdated custom of beneficence regarding terminal illnesses. Referring back to Daniel’s position on healthcare as a right to normal functioning, Henrietta was not able to go visit another hospital because of the discriminatory rules against black people seeking treatment at most hospitals. The opportunities Lacks had throughout her life were not equal due to the prevailing racism of her day, and unfortunately those inequities manifested in her ability to seek medical care for cancer.