By Chet Yarbrough
This story is much more than a history of a person’s life. Rebecca Skloot skewers choices of the medical profession with the story of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.
Skloot tells Henrietta Lacks’ history through fascinating interludes with Lacks’ family members who are bruised and battered by the story’s disclosures; none more than Debra Lacks Pullum who dies just before publication.
The medical and legal issues raised in this book are a subject for any conscience bound person. Skloot’s history of the Lacks’ family pumps life into an ugly story of human arrogance.
Henrietta is a young black mother of 5 children in the 1950s. She dies of cervical cancer at the age of 31, leaving her children to a life of poverty in a poor area of Baltimore, Maryland.
The cervical cancer that took Henrietta’s life, by luck and circumstance, became the source of an immortal cancer cell that could reproduce itself without apparent end. This cancer cell’s ability to reproduce became the basis for medical research that continues to this day. It is a medium for medical testing of everything from polio to the common cold.
Cultures of these cancer cells have been delivered to medical facilities all over the world.Costs for a vile of the cells exceed $200 to as much as $10,000 per specimen.
This incredible cell distribution system is founded on Henrietta Lacks’ admittance to Johns Hopkins Hospital and her doctor’s decision to culture the unusual cancer cells without any authorization from the Lack’s family.
In the 1950s, no authorization was required. In fact, the California Supreme Court has since found that the use of removed human tissue requires no authorization. However, the Court did find that patients are to be informed, via signed patient authorization, prior to human tissue removal. Further, the removed human tissue can not be used to disclose any information about the patient.
By the end of Skloot’s book, a listener knows the Lacks family, the reality of poverty, the consequence of neglect and misunderstanding, and the unfairness of life. The Lacks family received no recognition, let alone compensation, for the use of Henrietta Lacks HeLa cells. The Lacks family story exposes ethical questions about medical research, human experimentation and the potential for patient exploitation.
(ARTICLE IN “THE NEW YORK TIMES” OP-ED PAGE 12.30.15 BY REBECCA SKLOOT ASKS FOR PUBLIC COMMENT NOTING THAT “A MAJOR RULE GOVERNING HOW BIOLOGICAL MATERIAL IS USED COULD SOON CHANGE.”)