Gold, HeLa, and Glory: Medical Paternalism as a means to colonize the Medical field

In the second portion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we see the very worst sides of medical paternalism to the point where doctors and scientists truly believed their desires surpassed the human rights of their patients and that requiring them to act ethically was an infringement upon their rights as professionals to perform their jobs. To them, patients and research subjects were all disposable vessels used in the name of science and discarded for the sake of glory amongst their peers. Gey,Wilbur, and Southam exist as the noticeable culprits of this offense but the entire medical and research community is to blame.

I need to clarify that Henrietta’s cells were not simply “taken” or “used”, these words wrongfully sugar coat the offense: her body was stolen and sold by a white man who intentionally ignored a black woman’s humanity. Dr.Gey’s obsession with being the first researcher to grow human cells in a lab trumped Henrietta’s human right to possess and control the contents of her body – it was never about science, it was about recognition. Even after death, Henrietta was unable to rest as Hopkins pushed her husband to release her body for research even though her husband said no. It was only when Day was fraudulently coerced into believing his children would benefit from the procedures that he gave permission. Coercion is not consent and Dr.Wilbur knew this but he wanted Henrietta’s cells and he knew he had the power to take them simply because of his title. As Day put it, “…they is the doctor, and you go to go by what they say” (p.165).

It’s also absolutely necessary to point out how their position as white men in society contributes to the validation of their use of medical paternalism as a weapon against ethical practice. It took three Jewish doctors to confront and hold accountable one white researcher. A claim was even made against them that they were being too sensitive about their Jewish culture! As Skloot pointed out, Southam wasn’t even a doctor and thus wasn’t withholding information for the sake of any patients but was rather blatantly using deceit for his own personal gain. Here we see once again the lust of one outweighs the lives of many in the name of (faux) medical paternalism. Why were their wants more valuable than the need for consent? Was their research ever truly about the advancement of science or was it all for self-gratification?

One thought on “Gold, HeLa, and Glory: Medical Paternalism as a means to colonize the Medical field

  1. Cassie Srb

    Kat does a great job really highlighting the medical paternalism and racism at play regarding Henrietta and her cells. I especially like how Kat pointed out the issue of using “taken” or “used” to describe what was really “stolen and sold”. Dr. Wilbur knew that not only did he have sway over Day and the rest of Henrietta’s family because he was a doctor and was able to abuse his power of medical paternalism, but it was also easier for him to get them to agree because they were black and Dr. Wilbur was white. It is highly unlikely that Dr. Wilbur found Day to be unable to make coherent decisions about his wife and what should be done with her body. He abused his power as a white male authority figure to steal what he wanted against the wishes of Day through false information. It is obvious that Dr. Wilbur and the other doctors working with the HeLa genes had racist and supremist tendencies, which is pointed out not only through manipulation of Day and the distribution of the HeLa cells, but also the dispute with the Jewish doctors. As Kat pointed out, it took three Jewish doctors to successfully reach one white male researcher. In this setting there is no imbalance of power as there was between the doctors and Henrietta’s family; racism was the main factor at play which was highlighted through the anti-Semitic comments.


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