Rebecca Skloot is a writer specialized in science and medicine. In her first book, Skloot writes about Henrietta Lacks’ life story. Henrietta Lacks was a strong African-American woman, who died because of cancer without knowing that her cancer cells were immortal and very useful for medical research. Her family lived a poverty life without health care, when her cell was commercialized all around the world. That condition was related to biomedical research’s ethics and how consent form should be used properly.
“Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920” (Skloot 40). Her mother died when she delivered her tenth child. Because of losing her mother, Henrietta ended up stayed with her grandfather. However, Henrietta Grandfather raised another grandchild already. His name was David Lack and people called him Day. Henrietta and Day shared a bedroom since she was four years old. That is why, Henrietta first son was born when she just turn fourteen years old. And her second son was born four years later. On April 10, 1941, Henrietta and Day married; they were twenty and twenty five respectively. Henrietta and Day work very hard to feed the family. The work is tough as the black man do the job that white man will not do. Day and Henrietta planted tobacco seedling. Henrietta literally put the tobacco seed in a hole of red dirt. “Henrietta was pushing a homemade wheelbarrow and dropping tobacco seedlings into holes in the freshly turned red dirt” (Skloot 47).Order now
One day, a week after delivering her third baby, Henrietta found something strange in her vagina. There was a lump that hurting her. First, Henrietta ignored it; however, she continuously had an abnormal bleeding when it was not her menstrual period. Finally, the local doctor suggested her to go to Johns Hopkins Hospital. This hospital was a good hospital for poor people built in 1889. This hospital also treated black people even though most of hospital was white-only.
After her first visit to the hospital, Doctor Howard Jones called her back for cancer treatment. Before the treatment and operation, Henrietta signed a consent form of operation permit that said, “I hereby give consent to the staff of The Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform any operative procedures and under any anaesthetic either local or general that they may deem necessary in the proper surgical care and treatment of ___” (Skloot 54).
In the consent, Henrietta only agreed that the medical team of Hopkins would cure her through an operation process. Anything related to her proper surgical care and treatment was approved. However, there was something that the staff of Hopkins did without Henrietta’s agreement. Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr., was Hopkins’ surgeon on duty, before he placed radium inside Henrietta’s cervix, he removed a dime size portion of Henrietta’s tissues. There were two samples of her tissues, one from Henrietta’s healthy cervix and the other was from her tumor. Surprisingly, no one told Henrietta that they would collect a sample of her cervical tissue. There was no agreement about donating any tissue of her body even only a little. Even though at the end of the operation process, Wharton wrote that Henrietta’s cervical tissue was given to Dr. George Gey in the lab; Henrietta did not know any information about it. Henrietta never questioned her doctors; as a black woman she was just glad that she got the treatments for her illness.
Next, the assistance of Dr. Gey in the laboratory found out that Henrietta’s tumor tissue, called HeLa for Henrietta Lacks, was not dead and continuously grew and doubled their numbers in twenty four hours. Dr. Gey said that he would use Henrietta’s cell to find a way to stop cancer. And then, Dr. Gey told his close friends about the first immortal cell and shared Henrietta’s cells. “He sent shipment of HeLa cells to researcher in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam, and many places between” (Skloot 84).
On the other hand, Henrietta did know about her cells in the laboratory. After the treatment she just left the hospital and continued her life like usual. She still worked on tobacco. She had no sign of weakness even though she had radium in her body. However, when she came back to hospital for a check-up, the medical team found out that her body was already taken over by tumor. Her diaphragm, bladder, and lungs was a home for the cancer cells. The worst thing was her kidney could not filter toxins in her body; it made her poisoned her own body. She died on October 4, 1951.
HeLa has been used in medical research after Henrietta’s death. However, Henrietta’s family did not know that her cell was taken and used that way. “Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease” (Skloot 22). HeLa was commercialized but Henrietta’s family lived in poverty without any health care. Henrietta’s family has not received any money, while people gained profit from selling HeLa. Henrietta’s children received only a little education and some of them had health issue. “Henrietta’s kids grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country” (Skloot 26).
Actually, any tissue that has been taken from body is no longer yours anymore. It will be really hard to trace the identity of each tissue and then distribute the benefits gained from it. However, it is important to let the patient and the families know if there is any removal of tissues when the medical staff conducting an operation. Actually, it is not only about the commissions for the family who give up any tissues or organs, but it is about the ethic of treatment or even the ethic of biomedical research.
In fact, Henrietta’s family members were in need and may otherwise receive less help. It would be really helpful if people who received any advantages from HeLa were able to share the benefit to Henrietta’s family. Since Henrietta already died, her family members should have a right to prove or disapprove anything related to her. The research community should be responsible and granted Henrietta family’s wishes. There should be a right for Henrietta’s family to have some control over the use of HeLa. They have a right to get the equal distribution of benefits from HeLa. Further, they should have a better understanding about what is happening with HeLa. In fact, they do not know that “… HeLa helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization” (Skloot 19). Franklin Salisbury Jr., president of the National Foundation for Cancer Research said, “I understand that the family feels very abused” (Skloot 329).
Further, if Henrietta’s family has the right to control the use of HeLa, they will certainly allow the scientist to have research over HeLa. However, any benefit that can be gained from the use of it should be distributed equally to them. The benefit distributed is not only material but also any appreciation or honor. So that, Henrietta poor family might have a better life quality. Henrietta’s kids should have better education. Henrietta should not only become biomedical research’s hero, but also her family’s hero as well.
To summarize, the ethics of biomedical research need to be improved. Any consent form is signed by patient to control any procedure conducted during any treatment or operation. If there is any violation, patient or the patient’s family has a right to prosecute the medical team. Finally, Henrietta’s life story can be used as a lesson to improve the biomedical research’s regulation. And also eliminate any inequality on minorities. Everyone is deserved to be valued and respected.
Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Random House, Inc.,
2010, 2011. PDF e-book.