Thoughts on Part 1 of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In comparison to past readings, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is especially compelling. The intersection of history, social justice, biology, and ethics makes this truth an indelible, consequential narrative that all within (and outside of) the medical field should hear. It evokes philosophical and moral dilemmas that highlight how Henrietta Lacks became a tragic victim of medical professionals. The poignant reminders of the cruel treatment of black people in America less than 80 years ago make this tale even more frustrating and important to read.

I was first struck by the overwhelming suffering of Henrietta and the grace and simplicity by which she lived her life. The daily life for lower class African-Americans in the 1920s was challenging. Her upbringing, living conditions, and responsibilities are drastically different from the seemingly luxurious ones in my life. She was a kind, vivacious, generous Virginian who handled her obstacles with the utmost humility and morality. Her conscious effort to hide her pain and serious complications during and after childbirth, coupled with America’s broken social dynamic, ultimately led to her downfall.

Healthcare for whites vs. blacks in the mid-twentieth century were two different things. Henrietta was deprived of informed consent and autonomy in almost all of her medical procedures and appointments, yet the Johns Hopkins Hospital was painted in a charitable light, making their services to Henrietta seem heroic. Although she technically possessed a certain degree of autonomy, it was as if any service the hospital provided was supposed to be met with obedience and agreement as reciprocity, thereby diminishing her intrinsic autonomy. Henrietta’s treatments for cervical cancer were physically damaging and in the end, ineffective. Arguably the most infamous action was the retrieval of her cells which was done entirely without consent. Henrietta Lacks was fully deprived of quality care.

While I have focused much on expository information, I am nervously awaiting the coming events and progression of her story, and what’s to come from the HeLa cells. So far, it is evident that her family was not given compensation or reparations for the toll that this tribulation had on them. At the very least, her story must be told to spread awareness and pose important questions for the modern medical field. And although Henrietta’s case seems wildly outdated, similar problems still exist today.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Part 1 of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. Robel Betre

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in the previous post. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks documents an example of an extremely important facet of racial oppression in the united states. The lack of informed consent and absence of ethical care is articulated in a way that does a great job of connecting the reader to the issues of bias that our healthcare system has historically upheld. Similar problems that exist today present in much more covert and nuanced fashions than the events that took place in John’s Hopkins Hospital in 1951. For example, black women have a 243% higher chance of dying during childbirth than white women. This statistic well identifies that there is still an overwhelming presence of racial disparity incorporated into our American healthcare. The meaningless autonomy granted to Henrietta Lacks in her engagements with hospital administration and physicians plays forward into the lack of reasonable additional testing for minority groups that occurs contemporarily. There is much space between the things she endured and the way that we are treated today, but there is still much ground to cover before we can consider our healthcare system devoid of racial disparity.

  2. Will Cochrane

    I think this is a very good summary of the book thus far. You’ve written in a very clear, concise manner which I find very compelling. The storyline is accurate and such an inspirational story which so many more need to hear about. This is a novel aimed at those with an interest in medicine and ethics, however, it is so much more than that. As you have said it is a story with racial issues relating to the previous years of slavery in the US. I think it is a book everyone should hear about. You have heighted the importance that Henrietta had in everyone’s lives today and this book makes me think what it would have been like if she hadn’t been around. It is a truly inspirational read which can teach us so many lessons. I also appreciate how you have made it evident the importance of having autonomy and for how Henrietta, despite having “autonomy,” it is clear she did not. I too look forward to continuing the read and learning more about the life of this incredible women.


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