Her name was also not Henrietta Lacks, in fact, she was born Loretta Pleasant in 1920. Her life wasn’t easy, and instead of getting into all of the boring details, I am going to refer you to this excellent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Important detail number 1 (and only): in 1951 Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital to diagnose her pain. While there, samples of her cervix were taken without her knowledge. These cells are now what is known in the scientific community as “HeLa cells.” She died later that same year.
Sub-important detail 1: Taking part of Lacks’ body without her knowledge has raised some serious ethical concerns over the years. This became especially true once they were deemed useful and are now one of the most widely used cell lines for research purposes. Rather than getting into the argument myself, I am just going to encourage you to read the book and ask your own questions. I also just honestly think each individual will get something different from the book and I do not want to influence your decision should you read it some day.
Sub-important detail 2: Henrietta Lacks was a black woman. Would this situation have been different if she had been a white man? Her family certainly thought so (from what I have read), and it is hard not to think so. Particularly if she had been an established white man. Nobody takes things without asking when you are respected, and if they do, they’re usually the problem, not you.
Sub-important detail 3: When do the benefits outweigh the misconduct? HeLa cells have been used in developing the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization, all of which are exceptionally important to us in this decade. Without the polio vaccine, it would not have been eradicated in most of the world. With gene mapping, we can increase understanding of other diseases. With in vitro fertilization, couples having difficulty conceiving their own child have that opportunity. All of these are important medical advances.
- Knowing that a person is a person will always matter
- In science, we must make decisions as to whether or not a “sacrifice” is for the “greater good”
- This story could either be a tragic one, or a happy one. That is in the eye of the beholder