Part II of Lacks: Is the Separation of HeLa and Henrietta Lacks Justifiable?

In Part II: Death of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot illustrates the years succeeding Henrietta’s death. The immediate impact of HeLa, Henrietta’s immortal cells, on the cell-culture industry, and additional misleading truths of the care displayed by Johns Hopkins and Dr. Gey in Henrietta’s medical case are put on full display. At first glance, it is very clear that HeLa and Henrietta Lacks are two completely different living beings. Not only from the point of view in physical health and welfare, as HeLa is booming and Henrietta’s family is struggling in poverty, yet from multiple philosophical points of view it can be concluded that the separation of HeLa and Henrietta may not be justifiable. 

From the utilitarian scope, HeLa being distributed, leading to profits in the cell-culture industry and medical breakthroughs, may be reasonable at the very low cost of Henrietta’s family (many suffering from health conditions). HeLa was distributed not only around the nation but eventually around the globe due to Dr. Gey’s initial findings of being able to ship it successfully. At this point in the novel, the researchers and doctors see HeLa as an immortal gold mine of biomedical findings to be “pushed and shoved” to its limit. The cells grew to the point of “general scientific property”, according to Skloot (104). The cell-culture industry is booming due to Henrietta Lacks’s cells. Because of this gold mine characteristic, the overall benefit and good society receives is monumental. However, this utilitarian perspective seen by Dr. Gey and many other doctors disregards the moral beliefs, more specifically autonomy and “justice as fairness”, being violated during Henrietta’s care and the consequences her family must now face.

Dr. Gey’s actions to distribute HeLa already violated Henrietta’s, alongside her family’s, autonomy. Her cells were taken without her true, informed consent. This made the audience already question Dr. Gey’s moral thinking. However, during this second part, Skloot paints a very different picture of him. She makes him the “hero” by not saying and or mentioning Henrietta in interviews. From my point of view, this is immoral justice for Henrietta and her family. The “justice as fairness” policy is being violated; they must suffer from poverty when they have an opportunity to gain profit, yet that opportunity is unattainable (without true mention of Henrietta till twenty years later). Furthermore, after the death of Henrietta, the importance of her family’s autonomy increased when Dr. Gey wanted to perform an autopsy and needed her husband’s consent. Yet, Day, her husband, did not even know of what Johns Hopkins wanted. Due to Dr. Gey’s and Johns Hopkins’s mishaps, their action to not include Henrietta Lacks with HeLa is not morally valid. 

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