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Ethics in Henrietta Lacks

By Forzuhh May 07, 2013 1603 Words
The book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the pursuance of a social good by science, but at the expense of a family’s very own social good. Henrietta Lacks was a member of this African American family, and it was the HeLa cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks that proved to be an improvement in science, more specifically and importantly, medical treatment of patients with cancer. These cells have also generated a great amount of money for the main company that sells them for use by other medical centers and companies. The controversial question that this book brings to the reader’s mind is whether an improvement like this in science is worth the hardship of a family that is completely oblivious to how they are being taken advantage of.

This book follows the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family right before and after her death through the eyes of a curious science student/reporter. We are told about her lifestyle, giving us background on how she has lived her life leading up to her death. It is revealed that she has been forced to visit the doctor many times due to various diseases and infections obtained from her non-loyal husband Day. After she gives birth to her last child, she begins to feel serious pains in the lower abdominal area of her body, and goes to Johns Hopkins University Hospital for a visit as a last resort to identifying what is wrong with her and helping her recover. The reason for this being last resort rather than a priority in her decision-making for where to get treatment is because of two reasons: money and the color of her skin. It would cost much more to receive treatment at a hospital such as Johns Hopkins, and most hospitals generally did not treat black people as they treated white people. So it is obvious as to why this choice was a last resort. She did indeed receive treatment because, luckily for her, this was one of the few hospitals that actually treated black people like white people. She was not properly informed of what her treatment was doing, and once her HeLa cells were discovered, unnecessary tests and “experiments” were ran on her that had nothing to do with making her healthier, but she did know it. Henrietta was under the impression that she was being treated for her condition, but refused to inquire about what is being done to her in fear of the doctors stopping treatment. She eventually dies, but her cells were kept from the experiments and autopsy, allowing more research to be done on her. These cells eventually caused a turning point in scientific history, allowing companies to begin to widely manufacture these cells and sell them for great amounts of money.

As if the discovery and commercial usage of HeLa cells were a mirror, no one could see the other side of the good that came out of this; the side where no good came from this. After Henrietta died, the family was informed and they moved on after some time. Henrietta’s family had no idea that her cells had been snuck away by doctors and scientist in order to find a new type of cell that can do what no other discovered cell can efficiently do and bring in money for their company. Henrietta’s family was very poor, barely having houses big enough to comfortably fit everyone. Some of the family members had a slight idea of how their family member’s cells had been taken without any notification, or for that matter, permission. Much of the family was angry at the fact that they received no monetary aid or any form of compensation from the companies that used their family’s cells. We can agree that a monetary compensation for the family should not be the one and only thing wanted by the family, but the family definitely deserved some sort of proper informing of what is being taken from their family member and the tests being run on her for research. Even as a biochemistry major and aspiring medical doctor, I cannot agree with this type of “leaving the patient in the dark” policy that has been exhibited in this book. The reasons the doctors got away with doing things like this was because of the ignorance of the patients back then about what they are actually being treated for/with, especially the black patients during that time because they were most commonly taken advantage of.

In this case, was this science conducted in an ethical way? No, it was not, but I do not think that the doctors and scientists involved in the discovery of the HeLa cells were considering ethics at the time. Of course they may say that they were ethical when asked about it years later by a reporter that makes it clear that whatever they say can be used in a book that will be read by the public of the world, but in reality, it is doubted that they were ethical. These doctors and scientists wanted not money, but the recognition for the discovery of a type of cell that has been desired by many for years and years, and they were not going to let some black woman from the lower class interfere by answering “NO” to their request for permission to use her cells. By not telling Henrietta, the family was not informed, and no one of those companies were interested in informing the family that Henrietta’s cells are now being sold because monetary gain was the primary focus amongst these companies, not monetary compensation for families who they feel have no business knowing anyway. So, this essay raises the question again: is an improvement like this in science is worth the hardship of a family that is completely oblivious to how they are being taken advantage of? The family could have been so much better off if they had even a small percentage of the money that came from the selling of their family member’s cells. So to answer that question, my morals drive me to say no. Even if the doctors decided not to ask Henrietta if they could take her cells for further research and use, they should have definitely informed the family what they have been doing with the cells and give them some kind of compensation for it. By informing the family, the lies that were told to them could have been avoided and the use of her cells could have been more ethical seeing how Henrietta was a human being, not a source.

In this book, the social good was pursued at the expense of another social good. This occurs all the time, especially with politics and various government policies. A decision is made that improves a majority (sometimes a minority) of people’s lives, but does not improve, or actually worsens the lives of others. In this case, science helped the lives of many with the use of HeLa cells, but at the expense of the wrongly informed family of the woman who provided the HeLa cells for the improvement of many other people’s lives.

After taking this class and especially after reading this book, I will tie this back to the unifying question put forth by Ishmael: Is there something fundamentally wrong with our society? Now, I will reply yes. As a society, we tend to put our own needs above other people’s needs, sometimes putting our wants above other people’s needs. For example, during various voting events, we vote for the president that we want and the policies that we want. Assuming what we voted for come out as the majority vote; the president we voted for actually becomes the president and the policies that we desire come into effect immediately, the other people that voted different now have to live under policies that do not help their lives due to factors such as lower financial statuses, etc. So, as they get the short end of the stick, we are the part of society that are actually able to enjoy the social good while another social good is destroyed.

That is the idea that is exemplified in The immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as one social good is put above another’s social good of the same society. As science has progressed, there have been more policies and regulations put into place that ensure the ethical conducting of science when dealing with the public or with doctor-patient interactions. This book follows the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family right before and after her death through the eyes of a curious science student/reporter. Henrietta Lacks was a member of an African American family, and it was the HeLa cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks that proved to be an improvement in science, more specifically and importantly, medical treatment of patients with cancer. As a society, we tend to put our own needs above other people’s needs, sometimes putting our wants above other people’s needs., so the doctors took these cells in order to reach their own goal of discovering cells that can change medical treatment forever. As if the discovery and commercial usage of HeLa cells were a mirror, no one could see the other side of the good that came out of this; the side where no good came from this. In this book, the social good was pursued at the expense of another social good. The disturbing part is, this could have happened to anyone and they may not even know it.

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