The lack of consent and it’s political intersections: The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

Upon reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as a black person in America, I had my own set of realizations and ideations regarding the experience and misfortune that Ms. Lacks faced. It moved me beyond the parameters of philosophical ethicality, and into a medium of observation that felt so much more real. As a result of the color of her skin, Lacks was utilized in a tool like fashion for the perceived benefit of science regarding the development of a polio vaccine and a lead on the mystery of cancer. At face value, one may understand these goals to be noble and justify the actions of the doctor who navigated his research without seeking any measure of consent from Ms. Lacks. It is crucial to understand here that the intersections that existed, and still currently exist, between racial societal dynamics, the subsequent power structures in place, and the course of action taken in John’s Hopkins hospital in 1951 largely influence and play into the functionality of informed consent in our healthcare system. The harvesting of Lacks’ cancer cells was done without caution and rudimentary hospital procedure by Dr. Howard Jones and Dr. Greg Gey. The unsolicited removal of her cancer cells and her consequently worsening condition buries its roots not only in the doctors’ infatuation with a scientific breakthrough, but is paired along with a societal paradigm that cemented a racial hierarchy into its structure. The fact that Ms. Lacks was a Black woman adds layers of contextual data to the overall history of the events that transpired the manifestation of the HeLa cells. Even beyond her death, the family of Ms. Lacks has seen no benefit for the complete exploitation of Ms. Lacks’ condition. The constituent conversations about the lack of ethicality and moral righteousness should not fail to include an analysis of the racial and socio-political system that existed in the 1950’s. The mirroring socio-political framework that we maintain today has its own implications when it comes to the informed consent of patients who come from minority backgrounds. The likelihood of receiving additional testing and proper follow up care is very diminished in groups that exist on the lower end of the racial hierarchy in America, and identifying the connection between the historical precedent that exists within The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lackswas nothing short of riveting.

One thought on “The lack of consent and it’s political intersections: The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. Kris Chari

    In this cathartic and deeply introspective post, Robel presents a novel angle to synthesize meaning from Part III of The Immortal Life: he conceptualizes the struggle and ethical questions throughout this selection through the deeply personal perspective of being a person of color in America. He examines the content through an intrinsically reflective lens, which allows for a clearer and more pragmatic analysis of the ethical dilemmas presented. More specifically, he begins with the issue of commodification, then addresses medical neglect, and finally, provides an exegesis on racial hierarchy to extrapolate a contemporary relevance from the text.

    He begins with examining the commodification of Henrietta’s body, and acknowledges that she was “utilized in a took-like fashion.” The argument presented here clearly alludes to the ethical question of ownership, and denotes a deep personal pain of being valued merely as an object of gain. His argument is strengthened by examining the counterpoint: the justifiability of the overreach using the principles of beneficent paternalism. Paternalism simply does not function as a justification in this regard, as the motivations were often corrupt in these cases. They are simply a microcosm of racial power struggles, and medicine became just another form of subjugating black people. As society began to see a more egalitarian perspective of racial justice in the 1950s and 60s, medicine became an avenue through which traditional racial dynamics could be maintained, with white people at the upper echelon of authority and power and judgement, and people of color still in bondage.

    Robel then analyzes the issue of medical neglect, but purely from an ethical and philosophical perspective. His argument is substantiated because he extrapolates these issues to the ideological question of how implicit racial biases can drive forth apathy and malpractice in medical settings. I completely agree that while one facet of this neglect and lack of informed consent was driven by a pursuit of scientific breakthrough, there was indeed a subtext of unjust racial paradigms cemented in the racial structure of medicine. In fact, I would argue that the two perspectives were symbiotic to each other: the vaulting ambition of scientific breakthrough provided a curtain to disguise racism as beneficence, and the deep-rooted racist biases of society fostered the subjugation of people of color that made scientific breakthrough so accessible. They harvested the cells from her because they could so easily. As Robel correctly points out, the exploitation of Henrietta has seen no true retribution or distributive justice.

    The fundamental meaning behind this narrative is that these practices and attitudes still have effect today. Robel correctly identifies that this racial paradigm still persists, and the racial precedent set by these physicians still affects people of color today. I found this post to be absolutely riveting, and its arguments to be extremely well constructed and logically and ideologically consistent. I do however have some questions about their moral and practical implications. I ponder how much progress has been made in the field of medicine with regard to educating physicians on racial bias and informed consent. I personally believe that great strides have been taken in order to bridge the gap and rebuild trust, and while I acknowledge that there are still ways to go, the progress has been extremely conducive to a trusting and more beneficial doctor-patient relationship. I also wonder what solutions would be the most effective in bridging this divide. Personally, I believe that sensitivity training and racial bias training are absolutely crucial to provide restorative justice to cases like HeLa. Medical schools should start early in educating students about why informed consent, medical respect, attentiveness in care, and communication are especially vital with patients of color: they are often already operating from a well-warranted perspective of distrust.


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