Your body belongs to you. What happens to and with it is meant to be up to you. Anything else is an assault on your person. At least that is what we’re made to believe.
But what if that’s not true? What if people more powerful than us are stealing that ownership?
What if you discovered that a doctor had removed cells from your body without your permission, then sold them to others for a profit? How would you respond? What could you do?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the famous, rapidly-multiplying HeLa cells, which scientists exposed to all manner of diseases and cures—real and potential. They even sent them into space.
For years Henrietta received no credit for the cells. The scientist who took them refused to release her name to the public, saying that doing so would cause “problems.” When Henrietta’s name finally was released, it was misspelled or another name was used altogether.
The book, written by Rebecca Skloot, focuses on Henrietta’s daughter’s quest to learn more about her mother and understand the use of her cells.
I won’t say that Henrietta’s family should have become rich off of her cells, although a lot of people certainly did.
I will say that Henrietta should have received better care. At one point, she even was told that she could have no more of the needed blood transfusions because she was indebted to the blood bank, according to the book.
It’s also absurdly wrong that members of her family died without access to health care because of their poverty while Henrietta’s stolen cells were used to create a “multibillion-dollar industry selling human biological materials.”
Henrietta’s family died while scientists worldwide used her stolen cells, which then were being shipped to them from a cell distribution plant, for everything from combating genetic disorders to finding new ways to keep women’s skin looking younger.
That’s just wrong. It’s inhumane.
Of course, you also could say that Henrietta’s cells went above all others in serving the greater good.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is full of such complexities. While reading I found myself in awe of the unethical treatment of this woman and her family. I also tried to create context by realizing that the setting in which this book occurred was a much different world than the one we live in today. Those things, mixed with a little Henrietta voodoo, made for a truly interesting read.