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 And although Henrietta’s case seems wildly outdated, similar problems still exist today.