In Part One of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebbeca Skloot primarily documents the life of Henrietta. She was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920 and grew up working on her family farm. Here, she met her cousin, Day Lacks, whom she would marry in 1941 and parent five children with. By 1942, they had moved to Baltimore so that Day could work in a steel mill and hopefully achieve the American dream. However, the final chapter of Henrietta’s life began when she developed cervical cancer. In January of 1951, she first went to the doctor complaining of a “knot in her womb”; by early October, she passed away in John Hopkins’ colored ward. Yet, as highlighted by Skloot, this would not necessarily be the end of Henrietta herself. During her care at John Hopkins, her cervical cells were unknowingly harvested and found to be “immortal”. Her cells could survive in a culture and be subjected to otherwise inhumane experiments. After her death, her cells, named HeLa cells, were used to study the humane genome, understand the effects of deadly toxins, and to create the polio vaccine.
While it is undeniable that the HeLa cells were responsible for some of the most critical advancements in medicine, it is also clear that their discovery came through morally dubious actions. As stated on page 63, at the time, the medicine did not prioritize patient autonomy but rather “benevolent deception.” Doctors would withhold medical information so “as to not confuse or upset patients.” Doctors knew best, and that was that. Clearly, this culture of unwarranted paternalism infringed on the desires of patients, including Henrietta. As stated on page 48, it was not made clear to Henrietta that the radium treatment would make her infertile; had she known, she would not have undergone the procedure that led to the discovery of the HeLa cells. While a paternalistic medical culture was common back then, that doesn’t justify the violation of Henrietta’s rights. A patient should always have a certain degree of autonomy and basic knowledge of the treatment they are undergoing; for Henrietta to unknowingly consent to infertility is clear evidence of a violation of that right. To somehow justify the treatment of Henrietta at John Hopkins by saying “at least we made advancements due to HeLa” is irrelevant to the question of whether the cells were morally obtained. What happened to Henrietta was patently wrong, though we have all benefitted from that original sin. Yet, if modern physicians were responsible for Henrietta’s care, I feel many of them would still take a paternalistic approach, especially if they knew the ultimate outcome from HeLa cells. Even with this foresight, I feel there is no way to justify Henrietta’s treatment at John Hopkins and harvesting the HeLa cells.