Henrietta’s Glorius Life (After Death)

In Part II of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skoot dives into the “immortal” aspect of Henrietta’s life by commencing with her death and continuing with the prosperous life of her cells. Once again, we are reminded of the completely unethical practices performed on her to obtain said cells, and the continuous disrespect of her humanity. In fact, Mary, the lab assistant who actually cultured Henrietta’s cells, said that she never even considered Henrietta to be “human”, which begs the question, what did she consider Henrietta?

“When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me years later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Obviously this caries a racial undertone, that is heavily present throughout the duration of the book. This can be vastly contrasted with the glorious life that lives on beyond her death through her HeLa cells. Moreover, although her cells are treated like royalty, as Skoot describes in her book, Henrietta’s family continued to suffer from poverty, disrespect, mental and health issues. Although Henrietta had unintentionally contributed to science today, she received no benefits, recognition, or benefits to her and her family’s legacy.

The HeLa cells, that live on until today, were/have been viewed as the property of science. From a Utilitarian perspective, this is completely fine because although Henrietta’s life was lost, her cells have benefitted millions of people around the world through their paving of the way for advancements in cell culturing-a field I’ve worked in for multiple years. However, this is where the Utilitarianism’s paradoxical nature becomes apparent in that its aim is to benefit the most people possible, even at the expense of other’s lives, therefore still hurting others. Once again, this contrast can be seen in the abandonment of Henrietta and her family while many others benefitted. All in all, this shows how although philosophers attempt to deeply understand humans and their lives, some things, like morality and emotions, are not easily qualifiable.

One thought on “Henrietta’s Glorius Life (After Death)

  1. Lee June Yun

    Mukarram, in his blog post, analyzes the ethical issues that rise both in the use of HeLa cells in the medical field and in the treatment of racial minorities in the United States.
    In the analysis, Mukarram seems to implicitly suggest that racial minorities with medical conditions such as Henrietta Lacks were mere test subjects used for medical experiments and were not given basic human rights on the grounds that racial minorities were inferior. Perhaps, due to this inferiority, members of the superior race would not ‘feel’ much moral obligation to protect the basic human rights of racial minorities as they did not fully comprehend that racial minorities could also possess the same degree of rationality, pain, and emotion which are aspects of personhood that morally obligate us to protect and reserve human rights.
    It is very clear that Henrietta and other test subjects such as those kidnapped by “night doctors”
    were considered as experiment mouses. In the modern days, the moral reasoning behind not conducting harmful experiments on humans, and even mouses, are on the basis that these agents are able to feel the sensation of pain, and that it is unjust to inflict pain on others.
    However, unlike the black patients who were experimented on alive and were inflicted pain, the procedure of extracting Henrietta’s cells itself did not lead to much pain and was only morally wrong based on the idea that no informed consent was given.
    Mukarram then talks about the lack of compensation given to Henrietta’s family. However, I believe that a stronger justification for why Henrietta’s family ought to be compensated should be specified. If the compensation were to be made to Henrietta’s family, would it be an apologetic compensation for the immoral extraction of Henrietta’s cells? Or would it be compensation for the good intentions that Henrietta had in donating her cells for the development of the medical industry? Personally, since Henrietta Lacks did not have the intention of using her own cells to help save the lives of others, the first reasoning is more suitable. However, if that is the case, I believe that ‘being Henrietta’s descendant’ is a weak justification for why the families of Henrietta should reap the benefits that the HeLa cells brought to the medical industry, or be compensated for the moral mistreatment towards Henrietta herself.


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