Monday, December 19, 2011

An Immortal Woman Brought to Life

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
Rebecca Skloot

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot documents the importance of HeLa cells – something apparently widely known about in the scientific and medical community, and not so much outside of it. Basically, HeLa cells were the first cells that scientists could get to grow and reproduce in a lab, which allowed them to do a bunch of research and make some amazing medical breakthroughs.

Skloot is interested in the importance if HeLa cells, but she is more interested in the woman from whom they came. HeLa cells came from a real woman – Henrietta Lacks. She was much more than four letters and cancerous cells. She was a daughter, wife, mother, and woman. She was poor, black, and terminally ill. A doctor took samples of her body and used them in ways neither she nor her family (nor, really, anyone at the time) could ever have imagined. Skloot’s fantastic account of the lives of the Lacks family forces us to confront ugly truths about how science and society at large treats some of humankind’s most vulnerable members.

What does it mean for a doctor to take a sample of cancer cells from a person, conduct experiments on them, ship them throughout the world for other doctors to poke, inject, refrigerate, multiply, infect with disease? Is it just something that we should all unquestioningly accept as for the greater good? Our small part in the advancement of the species? What about when huge multinational companies make untold amounts of money as a result, and the person who gave the cells dies a pauper, their family unable to afford basic health insurance? Is it worse when the “donor” is a member of a minority group that has routinely been oppressed, denied knowledge and learning, treated as less than human, and experimented on?

Skloot points out the medical ethics were not what they are now. But is it any surprise that medical doctors in the mid 20th century would feel that they knew better than their uneducated patients, and not bother to get anything close to informed consent? Apparently battery (touching someone without their consent), which has been against the law since, I don't know, a really freakin' long time, doesn't apply to people in white coats.

This book is about more than these abstract, big picture questions. It shows how an individual family, a group of real, flesh and blood people, try to deal with something so big, so complicated, that it touches not only their lives, but the entire world, and even outer space. Skloot's talent lies in bridging the divide between the personal and the monumental. 


Alex said...

Read it last year and really liked it (I didn't even know HeLa existed!). My best parts were about the ethical dilemas and I must admit that I found the final sections about the Henrietta's family a bit of the slow side.

MJ said...

@Alex The ethical dilemmas were interesting. For me, the details about the family just showed how those issues affected real people, which makes an abstract debate much more concrete.

Ceska said...

I enjoyed that parallel stories of the Lacks family and the scientific issues. Both stories are well written and enlightening. She explains the scientific concepts in terms a lay person can understand. "Appalling" was a term that came to mind throughout the book. There was appalling treatment of the African Americans by bigotted whites and appalling studies conducted on unaware patients by god-playing doctors. I learned as much about racism in America as I did about science. On the downside, the book dragged in the middle. It would have benefitted from tighter editing. I got tired of the Lacks family whining, chapter after chapter. Skloot closes the book by highlighting some significant bioethical issues still pending in the court system.