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The paper discusses the story of Henrietta Lacks, the Afro-American woman, whose cells were taken without her permission and were used for medical researches. Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her children knew about the usage of the cells. The paper is aimed at discussing the ethical aspect of this story and its consequences.


Keywords: Henrietta Lacks, HeLa cells, research

Henrietta Lacks

1. To start with, it should be stated that the story of Henrietta Lacks is fascinating. Rebecca Skloot (2010) depicts the African-American woman, who died from the cervical cancer in her work titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks cells had been trying for years to culture immortal line of human cells (Gillham, 2011, p. 115).

It should be emphasized that Henrietta Lacks cells, which were called HeLa cells, turned out to be extremely essential for the modern science, as they helped to develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinsons disease, and theyve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers (Skloot, 2010, p. 4). Marianne Talbot (2012) in her book Bioethics: An Introduction points out:

More than 50 million tones of Henrietta cells known as HeLa cells have been grown since she died. Over 60000 scientific papers have acknowledged their use (with 10 new studies being added every day). Millions of dollars have been made on the back of them. Thousands of scientific careers have flourished and hundreds of millions of patients have benefited from the use of them. (p. 349)

The cells of this African-American woman assisted hundreds of people around the world; however, both their owner and her family members lived in poverty (Skloot, 2010, p. 168). The thing is that HeLa cells were stolen without any consent. Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her children knew about the usage of the cells. Despite the fact, doctors earned a lot of money on HeLa cells, while her children could not afford medical insurance. The case addresses the ethical factor of health care industry. In her book, Rebecca Skloot discussed the issue of privacy and the issue of control over personal genetic information.

Today, the relatives of Henrietta Lacks acquired some control over the cells. The article Family of Henrietta Lacks Gains Some Control Over Her Cells and Perhaps Peace by Mary Curtis (2013) states: Under an agreement announced Wednesday by the family and the National Institute of Health, the Lacks family will also receive overdue recognition in any scientific papers that result (p. 1).

2. It should be stated that agreement reached in the Baltimore Sun is rather essential for the Lacks family. It is worth mentioning that due to this agreement, grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks will be able to control the researchers access to HeLa cells, and will receive the scientific papers acknowledgements (Curtis, 2013, p. 1).

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Providing the members of Lacks family with the legal right to control the genetic data of their mother and grandmother is really important, as it allows the family to participate in the researches taken. The scientists will be obliged to take into account their personal viewpoint. Such treatment might be perceived as the breakthrough for these people. One should take into account that for 50 years, the cells of their relative were exploited without their permission. It should also be emphasized that such treatment was the result of racial discrimination (Skloot 2010, p. 64). Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman, and her doctor just used her cells without her consent (Skloot, 2010, p. 197). If Henrietta Lacks were rich and white, this would have different ending (Midorf & Lembert-Heidenreich, 2013, p. 199). The case shows that in 1950s, African-American people were used as guinea pigs, exploited by white people. White scientists used them in order to develop their careers, and gain contracts and grants.

Taking into account all the aspects of this story, one should understand that obtaining the right to make decisions is a real achievement for the Lacks family. They managed to overcome all the difficulties and made the American scientists respect their viewpoint.

3. This story teaches people that health care workers should respect such issues as medical ethics privacy. Doctors must honor people, regardless of their skin color, race, religion, or ethnicity.

In case of Henrietta Lacks, researchers have violated all the norms of medical ethics and privacy. The daughter of Henrietta Lacks pointed out that she was really glad that cells of her mother had helped so many people, however, she felt strange and stated that people got rich off my mother without us even knowin about them takin her cells, now we dont get a dime (Skloot, 2010, p. 9). The case has shown that these people were mad because they did not understand why their mother was on the moon, and she been in nuclear bombs (Skloot, 2010, p. 9). The lack of understanding and lack of information might be perceived as the most hurtful thing, as strangers used the cells of their relative every day, as if it was a slab of meat, and not a part of their mother and grandmother.

The agreement reached in Baltimore Sun might be perceived as the evidence that fight for legal rights always bear fruits. Today, the children and grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks are able to control the cell usage, and starting from that moment, they will definitely understand why the cells were used in this or that way.

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