Henrietta Lacks “HeLa cells” is whom I call the mother of Science, heroine of medicine, and the mother of life. She was a young woman in her thirties when she was admitted to the Johns Hopkins Hospital with an incurable cancer of the cervix in the 1950’s. This occurred during a time when people of color had no options and were marginalized by race, gender, and were segregated in society by law.
Science writer Rebecca Skloot has always been obsessed with Henrietta Lacks, the African American woman whose cancer cells were harvested and used to create an immortal cell line for scientific experiment. The Lacks family had no understanding of what the HeLa cells meant when Doctors would say Henrietta cells were immortal much less did they know where they came from and what they were, but the scientific community never did anything to correct that. However, this story is much more than the important scientific advances that Henrietta’s cells made possible, it’s about the racial politics and medical ethics that occurred before, during and after Henrietta’s death. When Henrietta learned about her stage I cancer of the cervix the boss of Henrietta’s Doctor Richard Wesley TeLinde at the time was arguing that cervical carcinoma in situ, considered a “non-invasive” cancer can still metastasize or spread, becoming something more serious if not treated but not everyone was convinced and it had only been 10 years since pap smear was introduced into preventative medicine. TeLinde planned a study to prove his theory and knew that Hopkins was a good place to find research subjects, lots of poor black women being treated for free because their participation in the study was considered “payback” for the free services.
TeLinde also wanted to get tissues from the cervix to grow outside of the body, if he could study them under the microscope he could show that the two types of cancer looked the same so he turned to George Gey the head of tissue culture research at Hopkins but there was one problem, human cells tended to die quickly in the lab setting rather than growing and dividing. TeLinde offered Gey cell samples from his cervical cancer patients and one of them happened to be Henrietta. No one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor and Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces from Henrietta’s cervix, one from her tumor and one from her health cervical tissue. These samples were taken in the name of research and not to treat her cancer but since she was not aware of what was going and was never told makes this matter unethical.
The basic ethical principles that were broken in the case of Mrs. Lacks that are needed to be considered in a research protocol involving human subjects are autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, confidentiality and justice. The subjects are individual autonomous agents and have the right to expect that their opinions and choices will be respected and supported, one basic application of this principle is informed consent. The researcher has an obligation to ensure that the individual has sufficient information on which to base an autonomous choice. The Doctors failed to inform Mrs. Lacks and didn’t give her the right to make her own autonomous choice, perhaps she would have consented to having her cells withdrawn knowing it was going to help many people. However, even if she would’ve denied consent it is within her rights to do so and the researcher would have to respect and support her decision. The Doctors also failed to let her know the side effects of the cancer treatment, infertility was one of one and had she known judging from her character she would have most likely refused because it was Mrs. Lacks desire to bear another child both in which are considered breach of code of ethics. Under beneficence and nonmaleficence patient benefit and risk calculations should be considered and every effort should be made to secure their well-being and two general rules are do no harm and maximize the possible benefits while minimizing possible harm.
On several occasion Mrs. Lacks mentioned that she was feeling extremely sick and not enough measures were made to secure her well-being and was just sent home and Doctors notes stated the opposite of what Mrs. Lacks would say, the times they did check her was to take more cell samples from her cervix, which is simply wrong. However, this was the time that benevolent deception was a common practice and Doctors often withheld even the most fundamental information from their patients and because segregation was law, black people often never questioned white people’s professional judgment, which can explain why Mrs. Lacks probably never asked questions. There have been many groups and cases for example the Tuskegee in which the burdens of serving as research subjects fell on groups for example welfare patients, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor. It is clear throughout the book the many institutions, Doctors, scientist, people etc. that have financially benefited from this research and the birth of HeLa cells, everyone except Mrs. Lacks and her poverty-stricken family.
Despite the unethical acquirement and the abuses of researchers with the cells, HeLa cells have led to many significant medical advances. Therefore, yes the many benefits to humanity do outweigh the means by which the sample was obtained simply because it would be hypocritical and hard to argue otherwise since we have all benefited from Mrs. Lacks. Thankfully, I never got polio nor did my children lose the use of their legs from it, first and foremost this is all thanks to Mrs. Lacks then to the scientists that learned how to culture her cells. Same goes for anyone who have beaten cancer, had a cornea transplant, and even those who have overcome infertility through vitro fertilizations because scientists began to understand how to isolate certain cells and help them survive. Also, at the time there was no law or code of ethics that required doctors to ask permission before taking tissue from a living patient, the only illegal action would be performing an autopsy or removing tissue from the dead without permission which the Doctors did not do because after Mrs. Lacks passed her husband signed and autopsy permission form. When asking do the means justify the ends, the answer to this question would depend on what the ends or goals are and what means are being used to achieve them. If the goals are good and the means we use to achieve them are also good then the ends for justify the means however, that’s not what most people mean when they use this expression they often mean that they will achieve their goal by any means necessary.
On the contrary it usually involves doing something wrong to achieve the goal and then justifying the wrongdoing by pointing out all the good that came from it and the positive outcomes. In the case of Mrs. Lacks the Scientists, Doctors or anyone involved can argue that what they did was a result of something good and positive and therefore, their “ends do justify their means. ” This book has changed the way I look at medicine overall, I never once thought where and how some of the vaccines I give to my patient’s came from or who was the person behind most of the medical advances Today. However, now that I know I plan to discuss this with my friends, relatives and colleagues at work to encourage them to read this book because it makes me so proud to know that she was a strong, beautiful, African American and a minority like myself. She is the mother of life that changed the world through her cells!
Like Henrietta Lacks are other great people throughout the course of our History that have made a difference by being marginalized by the color of their skin. I often question what the outcome would have been if her race was different? Would she have been given other alternatives and options? However, though the Doctors motives were impure, out of order and unethical it is because of Henrietta Lacks a woman from Clover that science has progressed for the benefit of future generations.
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