In her 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot uses the inspirational life story of Henrietta Lacks to explore the dark history of bioethics in America. Published by Crown Publishing Group, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the book highlights the plight of the Lacks family who have suffered years of mistreatment from unethical health professionals. The author traces the mystery surrounding the lifesaving immortal cell line’s genesis, the HeLa cell, and exposes the unethical medical practices that characterized public health practice and research in 20th century America. The book uses the inspiring story of Henrietta Lacks to expose America’s dark history of unethical health practices and experimentation on African Americans.
The book exposes how minority communities in America, such as African Americans, were exposed to unethical health experimentation due to racial prejudice. According to Skloot, the genesis of the HeLa cell, which is integral to modern healthcare, can be traced back to 1951 in a “colored” ward of the John Hopkins Hospital. Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer in 1951 and admitted for treatment at the then racially segregated John Hopkins University Hospital. Coincidentally, the John Hopkins University Hospital was studying cervical cancer, and the head of tissue culture in the institution, George Gey, was charged with developing a culture of both healthy and cancerous surgical cell tissue. Without her knowledge or consent, George Gey snipped cells from Henrietta Lacks cells and recorded them using HeLa’s initials. At the time, no human cells survived long in the laboratory, but surprisingly, HeLa cells could stay alive for long and grow indefinitely. The discovery of the HeLa cell line was a landmark achievement in medical research as it meant that the cells could be used for various research initiatives, such as the development of vaccines.
After the death of Henrietta Lacks, healthcare professionals continued to unethically harass and expose her family to further experimentation without their knowledge and consent. In 1973, almost twenty years after Henrietta Lacks’ death, geneticists realized that they could separate contaminated HeLa cells from pure ones by identifying genetic markers within the HeLa cell line. Consequently, geneticists from the John Hopkins University Hospital sought blood samples from Henrietta Lacks children under the false guise that they were being screened for cancer. The blood samples enabled the geneticists to separate contaminated HeLa cells from pure ones hence launching a multimillion-dollar industry specialized in the sale of human biological materials. HeLa cells played a vital role in the development of the polio vaccine, Vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping. The HeLa cell line is also essential in unearthing the secrets of cancer, the effects of the atomic bomb on humans, and the development of viruses. Due to its numerous health advantages, the HeLa cell line was patented not to Henrietta Lacks nor her estate, but to the medical researchers who discovered its lifesaving ability. Thus, as the HeLa cells generate billions of dollars, Henrietta Lacks’ children can hardly afford health insurance.
Skloot’s book highlights the bioethical issue of informed consent. Informed consent in health practice and research involves informing a patient or subject of a study of all the pertinent details, expected outcomes, and possible consequences of a trial test or medical procedure. According to Skloot, both the health practitioners and geneticists at the John Hopkins University Hospital who handled the HeLa cells failed to uphold even the bare minimum ethical standard of informed consent. By not informing Henrietta Lacks of the fact that her cervical cells were going to be used for research purposes, George Grey and other health professionals at the John Hopkins failed to uphold the ethical standard of informed consent. Moreover, by falsely misleading Henrietta Lacks children to donate blood under the auspices of cancer screening, yet their blood was to be utilized to identify genetic markers within the HeLa cell line, geneticists from the John Hopkins University Hospital failed to uphold the ethical standard of informed consent.
The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot takes modern health practitioners and students back to the dark days of unethical health practices. Rebecca Skloot describes the pain, anguish, and disappointment that emanate from unethical health care practices, particularly when aimed at an ethnic or racial minority in society. By highlighting the struggles of Henrietta Lack’s children and dependents while the HeLa cells are worth billions of dollars in the modern health market, Rebecca Skloot underpins bioethics’ centrality to contemporary healthcare practice and research. Reading Skloot’s book has enabled me to understand the integral role bioethics play in public health and research.