There is not much more that I can say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks that has not already been said by the popular press many times over. When the book was originally released it garnered a lot of national attention and made it onto many “must read” lists. It does bear repeating, however, that Rebecca Skloot’s book is an essential read.
Why? The book raises fundamental questions about race, class, and privacy through the lens of something that is almost universally regarded as a good thing—medical research.
The story of the cell line, HeLa, and the woman who was the source of the cell line, Henrietta Lacks who was often misidentified as Helen Lane among other names, is amazing just in terms of the medicine. For many years researchers has been unable to culture a cell line derived from humans in the lab for any extended period of time. Forget about shipping those cells beyond the walls of the lab in which they were created. This stumbling block created all kinds of hurdles for research until Henrietta Lacks walked into Johns Hopkins to be treated for cancer.
Henrietta Lacks died from the cancer that brought her to Johns Hopkins, but a part of her lived on after being taken by a doctor at the hospital. The cell line, known as HeLa from then on, served as the foundation upon which a dizzying array of medical research has been conducted. As her descendants were fond of telling anyone who asked, parts of Henrietta Lacks had been sent up into space, blasted by atom bombs, and helped create miracle cures.
The story is about much more than just the medicine. It’s about race, class, and privacy in a way that is very relevant to the United States in 2013. As our society becomes increasingly unequal in terms on income distribution and the opportunity to escape the poverty trap becomes more difficult as support is removed it is essential to remember that this is not a permanent state of existence. The pendulum may be swinging toward a world that resembles the one in which Henrietta Lacks lived and died, but it does not have to remain that way.
Henrietta Lacks lived and died in a world where her privacy and ownership of her own cells was not a given. It was a world where her medical care was determined by the color of her skin and her station in society. If that sound familiar it ought to since in the modern world we, as human beings, are often subservient to corporations, our medical care is provided only at the pleasure of odiferous insurance companies, and the striking differences between what is available to different classes is Dickensian.
No matter how much we things have changed, much of the situation remains the same.