Category Archives: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks II

Maximizing Utility or Maximizing Profit

The second part of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, traces the different paths taken by HeLa and Henrietta Lacks. The immortal cells, called “HeLa”, become an essential tool for scientific research in countless fields. Initially, the cells are distributed freely by Dr. Gey, the scientist who harvested the sample. But demand grows quickly and the cells are soon the center of an entirely new area of scientific study, cell culture. The cells and the industry quickly become profitable. HeLa cells eventually become “general scientific property” (Skloot 104). While HeLa and scientific research are booming, Henrietta’s family struggles in difficult living situations, lacking money, education or most importantly, healthcare. This shows the completed division between Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman from Turner’s Station, into HeLa, cells only known for their furious division and accompanying range of discoveries.

Pomerat’s declaration that HeLa cells belong to the entire scientific community represents a very utilitarian view of research. From the utilitarian perspective, the free distribution of these cells results in huge benefits at relatively low cost. At this point, these cells are largely viewed as an object–a cargo that should be shipped carefully, a substrate that can be endlessly poked and prodded. Because of the biomedical success of HeLa cells, they contributed to the overall good of society. This was likely the thought process followed by Gey and other researchers who were instrumental in HeLa’s spread. This utilitarian approach follows the methods of collaboration and sharing of new discoveries common in the sciences.

However, the utilitarian theory quickly breaks down upon inspection of Henrietta’s children and family following her death. The argument for universal healthcare can also be made using the ideas of maximizing utility. If the entire population has access to the same service meant to maintain a basic quality of life, then the quality of life of the population should improve, a positive outcome from a utilitarian perspective. The contradiction comes when looking at the Lacks’ family decades after HeLa flourished. Much of the family is plagued by serious health conditions, yet none of them have reliable access to healthcare. This begs the question of the universality of a theory. Would utilitarians allow for this type of double standard? On one hand, the distribution of Henrietta Lacks’ cells without her consent can be brushed off as being overwhelmingly beneficial for society. But these utilitarian principles not apply when trying to maximize the good of the very people involved (indirectly) in remarkable scientific breakthroughs. Are there ulterior motives in following some a moral theory in some realms but not others, potentially for financial or professional gain? This represents the issue that arises when trying to apply abstract moral theories directly to concrete applications–clear stances and principles appear to soften or even contradict.

Views on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Part II

Two main things struck me within this part of the biography. First of which is the subject surrounding the requirement of consent after her death in comparison to before. I found this an especially difficult subject to get my head around. Thinking from a logical viewpoint, it would appear to make more sense that consent would be required whilst the person is still alive and then not required when dead. However, here this is not the case. This subject falls under autonomy – surely it a person has the right to self-govern there-own body, and therefore consent is required for the harvesting of their cells? On the back of this, does someone dead still have autonomy? After thinking about this, I could see more clearly why Henrietta’s family were unsure about giving consent to the doctors.

Another area that causes concern in this part of the biography was numerous articles that were published or going to be. In these articles, it was common that Henrietta’s name was mistaken for another name or that her name was not included at all for privacy. I have less strong feelings towards her name being left because I agree with privacy for the family. However, when relating to the changing of her name, personal issues begin to arise. Primarily of these is that in doing so it feels that the humanistic nature of the case it was taken out. It feels that there is no care given towards Henrietta or the sacrifice that she gave. It makes her seem like a nobody because the writers could not take the small amount of time to correct themselves. I find it merely disappointing. It makes me think about the medical system as a whole. How much do they care, or are you simply another task that they must complete? Another potential warehouse of parts.

The second part of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks focusses primarily on the time and events that take place after the passing of Henrietta – including the mass production of her cells, the news article written about the cells and the discoveries that came as a result of her cells. In this part, it talks about a polio outbreak that Henrietta’s cells helped to find a vaccine for as well as the discovery that humans have forty-six chromosomes. It also shows the interaction between Henrietta’s family and the doctors, who due to her passing now required consent to harvest more cells.

In conclusion, the second part of the biography is one that sparks personal issues for me over the treatment of Henrietta’s name as well as arguments surrounding patient autonomy. Should consent always be required when a person is alive? Should it be when dead if it is deemed to be for the greater good of humanity? In the eyes of medical professionals, are we just a warehouse of potential parts they can use to fix others? These are just questions that came to my mind when reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks part II