Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Unethical Controversy of Henrietta Lacks' Immortal Cells

      The story of Henrietta Lacks is science ethics at its most important example and violation. Henrietta Lacks’ African American heritage and being in the lower class of society played a huge role in what happened to her. Lacks’ “immortal cells” were taken from her during treatment of a tumor. Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr. retrieved the samples of cells without her permission. It was common that many of the doctors used samples from poorer patients who visited public facilities. The samples were usually taken without the patients’ knowledge or consent. In fact, many “scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment” (Skloot 30). But, the question is: Was this the right thing to do? Although, HeLa has contributed to the polio vaccine, and research in cancer and AIDS, is it worth violating someone’s natural right to know what their doctor is doing to their body (or with their body)? 
     What makes HeLa so unique is that the cells can multiply rapidly. HeLa breaks all conformities of what a normal cell should be and how it should act. The cells were like a needle in a haystack. Dr. George Gey, the doctor who was given the cells had been looking for “immortal cells” for a very long time. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were very valuable and had been long sought after; but, the fate of her family is not reflective of Lacks’ medical contributions. Lacks’ family were unaware that Henrietta’s cells were being used. Johns Hopkins’ Hospital was charitable to the lower class, but at what price? Hopkins’ once studied black children’s blood for a “genetic predisposition to criminal behavior” (Skloot 167). Also, two black women sued Hopkins’ for their knowing that their children had been exposed to lead, but failed to inform them because they wanted to continue a study of lead abatement methods. However, what remains the most controversial and most wronged of those researched was Henrietta Lacks whose family remained in poverty after her death. 
     I interviewed May Wildman, a reporter for University of Maryland's Diamondback who attended a recent event where Henrietta Lacks' son, David "Sonny" Lacks was a speaker. She informed me that the family has yet to receive compensation. The most they have gotten is a statue in a lobby at Johns Hopkins. In a second interview, I spoke with a manager at a family care office at Providence Hospital in Washington DC, Teresa Yeager. She informed me that in her office, as is required by law, a patient must sign a consent for their doctor to release or use any of their samples or information. Also, I explained Henrietta Lacks' story, and asked for an opinion about the ordeal. Like many people, Ms. Yeager was surprised to find out that someone's cells were used without their permission; and after Henrietta passed her family remained poor. 
     Today, it is baffling that nothing has been done to give the Lacks family compensation. It is saddening that Henrietta Lacks' cells were taken; it is saddening that she passed away; it is saddening that her cells were used for research; but most of all, it is saddening that it has been 60 years and nothing has been done to attempt to rectify the ethical violation of Henrietta Lacks. (Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Random House, 2010.)

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