Henrietta Lacks and the Question of General Ownership

In section two of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Skloot investigates and scrutinizes the intersection of personal and scientific ‘ownership’ and the somewhat ironic repercussions that the HeLa situation has had on the scientific community vs. Henrietta’s family.  To explore the ethical question of scientific ownership, I will focus mainly on Dr. Charles Pomerat’s classification of HeLa cells as “general scientific property”, and how this designation has impacted-and could continue to impact- both the scientific world and patients/their families.

In Part Two, Skloot quotes Dr. Charles Pomerat on page 104 as saying that Gey should have finished his own HeLa research before “Releasing HeLa to the general public since once released, it becomes general scientific property” (p.104). Unsurprisingly, this immediately raises questions about this concept. A quick search defines this term as “[a community’s] absolute ownership, usually of personal property, with the right of complete dominion over it”. In HeLa’s case, this right of complete dominion was used to allow doctors to buy, sell, and perform millions of tests on reproduced HeLa cells. This leads us to the unavoidable question of ownership. In Henrietta’s case, the cells were not considered to be “hers” once they were removed- they instead became a general experimentation asset to the medical community. In other words, the tissue that used to be intertwined with Henrietta was removed and became, instead, a separate ‘thing’ that was considered completely separate from the person from whom it was taken. This new object is now the property of the medical community and any benefit or profit made from it does not benefit the patient or in this case, the family of Henrietta (as she passed away.” This is a dangerous precedent to set, in my opinion, because it sacrifices the informed consent and personal ownership of one person for the “general good” of a community. However, once this vague precedent is set, the community which benefits would often do so at the expense of others.

This complete separation of the HeLa cells from the Lacks family immediately presents itself as an ethical issue, especially when you compare the massive, profitable impact HeLa had on the biomedical field and the world as a whole. The book repeatedly mentions the massive industries born from Henrietta’s cells, notably cell culturing centers, which now reap millions in sales and exert large influences over scientific fields. However, at the same time that HeLa was starting this, Lacks family relatives were dying of TB and other preventable illnesses because of inadequate healthcare. Examining this through Utilitarianism, it, at first glance, seems justifiable: it produces the most happiness for the most people. However, the lack of respect and ownership given to Henrietta and her family complies with a dangerous double standard: the benefit of one community (science) is more valuable than the utility of another (Lacks and other African-American patients at the time). One must realize that by only looking at the utility gained by the medical community and the potential people their HeLa research could help, they are overlooking and ignoring the underlying issue of inadequate moral respect, communication, and access to proper care for the Lacks and other families.

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