HeLa vs. Henrietta Lacks: a Disregard for and Objectification of Medical Subjects

In Part II of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot delves deeper into the sharp contrast between the life of HeLa cells and that of Henrietta and her family. While HeLa cells lived a flourishing life and legacy far beyond Henrietta’s own, Henrietta and her family faced numerous healthcare struggles that only seem more unethical in light of their initial ownership of Henrietta’s scientifically renowned biological material. After Henrietta’s death, Henrietta’s family consented to an autopsy, but both Henrietta and her family were never informed of the removal of her cancer cells for medical research. Even after HeLa cells made huge strides in the medical world and people from all over came to interview Henrietta’s family, Henrietta’s family still had little information about what HeLa cells were actually being used for. On top of this withholding of information, Henrietta’s family constantly struggled to afford much needed healthcare, which was unfortunately ironic considering the impact of HeLa cells. 

I think that this distinct contrast results from what can essentially be boiled down to the perception of colored people at the time as merely a means to an end for selfish, and often economic, motivations. This view of Henrietta’s biological material as a transactional item, especially as it became more and more widespread in the scientific community, diminished Henrietta’s worth as a human, which Gey’s assistant Mary actually points out with her observation of the chipped red polish on Henrietta’s toenails — “I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person.” It’s evident that this objectifying of patients, especially colored people, for medical research wasn’t uncommon, as Sonny tells Skloot “John Hopkins was known for experimentin on black folks. They’d snatch em off the street…”

With this in mind, so many other actions of the people involved with HeLa cells become contentious. For instance, Gey’s claim of protection of privacy for Henrietta and her family is greatly undermined by his failure to receive informed consent in the first place and also the lack of compensation to Henrietta’s family. This puts into question: when Gey claimed to protect Henrietta’s privacy, was he honest or was it more about claiming ownership over HeLa cells by not recognizing Henrietta’s contribution? Is it ever ethical for anyone to claim ownership over someone’s biological material other than that someone and perhaps his or her family? And finally, to what extent can utilitarianism justify these members of the scientific community’s actions?

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