Kylee & Courtney
This month’s book is: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
We first picked this book because of the upcoming TV adaptation this year. And to be honest, at first I was a little wary to choose it because it is, after all, a nonfiction biography of sorts, not my typical first choice in literature. And to say the story swept me from the get go wouldn’t be true. It took me a bit to get into the story, but it was fascinating. To be completely honest, I was more enraptured by the story of Henrietta herself, rather than the interspersed plot of her daughter learning about what became of members of her family, but I appreciated both parts nonetheless. Overall, a good educational read and definitely more entertaining than other biographies I’ve slugged through. However, I can’t say I’d jump to this book as my first recommendation for others.
I hate biographies. In fact, I’ve only read a handful in my lifetime (and those only because I was forced to for educational purposes)! That being said, I really enjoyed reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The moral and ethical questions it raises kept me turning the pages. Interestingly, a few days after finishing the book the Today Show on NBC ran a story featuring the exact same issues raised by Henrietta’s case. The difference: the patient is a white female. And, it’s 2017. Like Henrietta, her cells are unique and proving to be a major step forward in the battle against cancer. In the Today Show case, the doctor is working closely with his patient and appears to be openly engaging in conversations about compensating her for her unique contribution to science. Bravo for the progress in open communication between patient and doctors!
What is your opinion on the morality of researchers taking Henrietta’s cells and making a profit from them?
This question is tricky and one I’m still not sure I fully can decide on. On the one hand, it infuriates me that her cells were taken without her permission. I 100% cannot stand behind their decision to profit from another woman’s body, let alone the fact they asked no permission. I think the doctor and that hospital took advantage of a woman mistreated due to her race, class, and lack of education. But the part that holds me up is all the good that have come from her cells. Would I go back and change those events and risk all the medical advances we have made because of them? As much as it kills me to say it…no I probably wouldn’t change anything. However, I would change how the situation has been handled since. Which leads to the next question.
Should patients be compensated for the use and development of their biological tissues and cells? In my opinion…absolutely! It is obscene to me that scientists would ever think they could scrape away a sample of your cells, use the sample for a financial endeavor and retain all the profit. But even post Henrietta Lacks, doctors and scientists are getting away with such practices daily. How many times have I thoughtlessly signed away my rights to possible profits at the doctor’s office. Almost at every visit. In my lifetime, I have probably signed a hundred releases allowing doctors to possibly profit from my biological tissues. I (and I’m guessing everyone else) mindlessly sign those releases every time I have a major or minor procedure done at the doctor’s office or hospital. When you stop to think about it, it’s unconscionable that anyone should be asked to sign away those rights. I could go on but the long and short of it is that I strongly believe patients should be compensated for profits derived from their biological tissues.
Should the Lacks family be given financial compensation?
As much as we may want to, we can’t go back and change history. However, I believe in looking toward the future and finding recompense there. I think Henrietta’s immediate family should definitely receive a large chunk of money from the very companies making profit off her cells. I also think their family should receive a royalty on all profits made from her cells from this point on. I get that it’s not realistic to give money to every single extended family member, but what I would love most to see are these companies setting up a scholarship fund to send her extended family to high school and college. Part of the issue repeatedly brought up in the book was the lack of education. Well now the companies that took advantage of Henrietta initially should turn around and finally return the favor.
As far as the Lacks family goes, they were treated unjustly. Period. I’m not sure how they could ever be adequately compensated for the medical advances achieved from HeLa cells. Especially with as much time as has passed. And doesn’t it seem like someone, somewhere could at least erect a monument in honor of Henrietta Lacks…at the very least. Ideally, I’d like to see a monument and some kind of prestigious award granted yearly in her honor to a scientist or doctor who advances the work of curing cancer. It strikes me as callous that nothing has ever been done to acknowledge Henrietta Lacks’ life.
Final Rating (Out of 10):
March’s Book: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah