Tonight, the film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks debuts on HBO. The book is one of my favorites. The story of Henrietta Lacks (and her descendants) alongside the evolving discovery of the seemingly infinite replication of HeLa cells taken from Henrietta’s malignant tumor is brilliantly told by Skloot. And, the work effectively reveals the complexity of ethical decision-making when individual bodies are involved in the process of furthering scientific knowledge. My class in Writing and Medicine just finished reading the book, and the students had much to say about the benefits and drawbacks of using discarded bio-specimens for research without patients’ full knowledge or permission.
Of course, in the story of Henrietta Lacks, issues of class and race influence how readers might interpret the use of one woman’s cells in millions of research studies around the world since the 1950s. In a story published in The New York Times this week, though, Holly Fernandez Lynch and Steven Joffe caution society against privileging individual autonomy over scientific progress. Simply put, human tissue–which is often disposed of following surgical procedures, anyway–is needed by researchers who seek to better understand how all of our bodies work and how to address those diseases that hinder us. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/21/opinion/henrietta-lacks-why-science-needs-your-cells.html?emc=edit_th_20170421&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=44005038&_r=0
I don’t know that there is an easy answer to the central dilemma explored in Skloot’s book. From an admittedly (selfish) academic perspective, that complexity is what most fascinates me about science and medicine.