The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Teenaz Ralhan

Mrs. Henson

APLAC- 6th

17th September 2012

Summer Reading Essay- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I. Introduction and Context:-

She is the reason that so many individuals survived. Her cells saved billions of lives the world over. Yet, they failed to save her. Researchers refer to her cells as HeLa, they do not realise that she was a real person- Henrietta Lacks. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot narrates the story of a woman of African origin-Henrietta Lacks, in Baltimore, Maryland. Lacks is a mother of five and leads a regular and happy life with her husband, children, and other relatives. This perfect world suddenly disappears when she realises that she has a knot in her womb. She goes to John Hopkins Hospital for treatment. She has cervical cancer. The hospital takes advantage of the situation and of her colour. They use her cancerous cells for research. They repeatedly expose her to high amounts of radiation in order to extract more cells. Years after her inevitable death, her family c to know about HeLa. They are devastated. Through her portrayal of the impact that the revelation of HeLa had on the Lacks family and the fact that the doctors at John Hopkins repeatedly exposed Henrietta to radiation in order to take cancerous cells from her body, Rebecca Skloot brings two questions to mind- Does science murder to dissect? Is taking someone’s cells without their permission ethical?

II. The Author’s Background

Rebecca Skloot is a science writer. She has written articles for the New York Times Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Discover, on topics like goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, and food politics (Skloot www). Skloot attained her Bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, and her MFA in creative non-fiction writing (Skloot, www). Being a graduate in biological sciences, Skloot would have a thorough understanding of the main argument presented by the story of Henrietta Lacks. The very fact that Skloot has written on tissue ownership rights and, race and medicine, implies that she has researched both topics well and is an authority on them. She perfectly combines scientific knowledge with emotional impact in the book. She uses the Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, Deborah’s feelings and emotions to literally tug at the heartstrings of the audience. Rebecca Skloot presents the facts as they are. Although, she does try to imply the fact that Henrietta’s cells were used because of her color; however, she leaves it to the reader to form their own opinion as to whether it was right or not. Skloot does not allow her opinion to come in the way and bias the author’s viewpoint. She presents the differing viewpoints and opinions of the family and the researchers.

III. The Book’s Argument

Rebecca Skloot’s main argument in the book is that researchers should take permission from people before using their cells, tissues, or any other body part for research. It does not matter if the tissue is waste material after a surgery; it was a part of the other person’s body at some point. The person has privacy rights and nobody, regardless of level of authority has a right to violate that privacy. The author develops her argument by quoting what researchers the world over have to say about the case, by talking about the family, and also by mentioning an interesting case called Moore vs. Regents of University of California (Moore vs Regents www).

Rebecca Skloot met a lot of doctors and scientists when writing the book. She went to John Hopkins Hospital numerous times during the ten year time period. Researchers in the hospital claimed that Dr. George Gey, the first person to work with the HeLa cells did not earn a lot of money from Henrietta’s cells. (John Hopkins www). However, other researchers in countries like Sweden, Russia, and France earned a lot of money for just researching. A certain amount of the taxes that we pay...
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