Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of a 31-year-old African American woman who was treated for an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951 which she died of a year later. While performing her first radiation treatment, the doctors also took a sample of her cancerous cells which became the first human “immortal cells” known as “HeLa” which were a key part of the advancement of many medical treatments including chemotherapy and the polio vaccine. Skloot begins the book by talking about Henrietta’s childhood and life as a young adult, where she lived in impoverished circumstances and was obviously not able to receive convenient and consistent medical treatment. At the time, Johns Hopkins was one of the only hospitals in the Baltimore area that had a “colored” wing where they would treat black patients.
The morality of the doctor’s treatment of Lacks is heavily scrutinized, as no informed consent was given by Lacks. From a legal standpoint, the doctors received all the consent they needed to perform the cell biopsy, as she did sign a form stating her consent for the doctors to “perform any operative procedures…that they may deem necessary” (Skloot 77). However, she was never informed what exact procedures were going to be performed and why, which goes against all criteria of informed consent. Additionally, she was never told the procedures would make her infertile. Not only is this permanent and important information regarding her procedure, but she also stated she would not have gone through with the procedure if she had known this was a consequence. This is one of the main reasons why informed consent is so important. She lost the ability to do something she loved -having children- which would have been preventable had she received all the information. One might argue that this is besides the point considering she may have died even quicker without the radiation. However, a patient, regardless of the outcome, should have the right to make a decision about their body regardless of the consequences either way.
One quote that really stood out to me was Grey calling himself “the world’s most famous vulture, feeding on human specimens almost constantly” (Skloot 76). I don’t believe that Grey saw anything wrong with getting his samples without consent, especially when he viewed it as a sort of “payment” for treating the patients in the public wards such as the colored ward at Johns Hopkins. This highlights the racial issues within healthcare at the time. Grey may have been willing to treat people of color, but he saw no issue with taking from them personal property such as cells without their consent.