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Moral Analysis of the Case of Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Research on humans has greatly influenced scientific and medical industries for many decades. Today, the health industries are among the largest industries in the world because they have produced cures to many sicknesses and diseases that were not previously available all credit to scientific research specifically to human and animal research. The ethical policy issues associated with human research have been a subject of long debate, however, the story of Henrietta Lacks helped to establish a lot of the rules and regulations guiding the scientific community today. The story of Henrietta Lacks caught the attention of many people. According “Lessons from HeLa Cells: The Ethics and Policy of Biospecimens” by (Beskow Laura 2016) the story has been a catalyst for policy change, including major regulatory changes proposed in the United States as well as many different countries around the world surrounding informed consent and human research. These outlines are introduced in part because of public opinion, datas collected, and research cases that were handled poorly like the case of Henrietta Lack. Research on humans has played a crucial role in science and medicine. Scientific research on humans will continue to be important in realizing the goals of improving life medically and scientifically. Scientific research on humans and animals has led to more ways to explore the human body and better ways of treating several health issues like providing vaccine for polio, and treatment for leukemia, also provide ways to prevent future sickness and diseases.

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Although scientific research on humans has brought more results than harm, it has been debated about the ethical policies and consequences. Let us take for instance the case of Henrietta Lacks.

According to the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by (Skloot Rebecca 1972), the story behind the HeLa cell line is now widely known. Henrietta Lacks, a 30-year-old African American woman with five children, was diagnosed with an unusually aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. Tissue samples were taken during her diagnosis and treatment, and portions were passed along to a researcher without her knowledge or permission, as was common practice at the time. Researchers had long tried without success to grow human cells outside the body, and it soon became clear that Henrietta’s cancer cells labeled “HeLa” based on the initial letters of her first and last names were capable of surviving and dividing in indefinitely. Cancer quickly took Henrietta’s life, but HeLa cells remain alive today and have been used in laboratories around the world for different biomedical research. Although the original researchers gave the cells away to anyone who asked, the cell line discovery became extremely commercialized while the Lacks family received no financial benefits and continued to live in poverty.

The case of Henrietta Lacks is a very difficult one because of how morally different it is depending on the theory that one uses. As humans there are certain actions or things, we do which can be considered wrong. However, we do them with the best intentions. For instance, let us assume I have a friend that stole a piece of bread because he was starving, he would need to be punished and the severity of his punishment is equal to death. If my friend ran to me for safety, I would rather not give him up even though I know he stole something because he is my friend. According to Briggle and Mitcham’s Ethics and Science, from the perspective of Consequentialism, harvesting and using Henrietta Lacks’ cells is a morally just action, because it led to amazing advances in science and medicine, such as the cure for leukemia, gene mapping, the polio vaccine, and the cure for influenza that has potentially saved thousands and millions of lives over many decades and will continue to influence the field of science for the rest of time. However, According to Briggle and Mitcham’s Ethics and Science, deontology would argue that this was morally wrong, because the action itself was done without consent from the subject or her family, in fact the family of Henrietta Lacks did not get to find out until after twenty-five years after she died. The knowledge of the HeLa cells was continuously covered up and not reported to Henrietta Lacks’ family or the public.

I personally believe that the actions of the researchers were largely beneficial. From harvesting Henrietta Lacks’ cells, the researchers were able to develop a cure to several sicknesses and potentially saved millions of lives. Based on how things were back in the 1950s, there was not much scrutiny in the scientific community, it was easy for anyone to get away with anything. However, the scientists that were involved in Henrietta Lacks’ case handled it very poorly, they could have followed the due process when it comes to using humans for research purposes. One negative thing that stood out to me was how Henrietta Lacks’ cells became commercialized without her family benefiting anything from it. According to Briggle and Mitcham’s Ethics and Science, the standard of consent from the ‘Declaration of Geneva’ was for the ‘health and life of my patient to be my first consideration” and holding the ‘utmost respect for human life’ (p. 138). To me, the treatment of Henrietta’s body and of her family do not project these standards. Misleading her family about the purpose of her autopsy and then not informing them of how Henrietta’s tissues would be used is not ‘utmost respect’ for either the body of the patient or Henrietta’s family. However, the benefits of the experiment have undoubtedly saved countless lives. Too many people are benefiting from that research, even after many decades. In conclusion, when it comes to my final opinion, I think the benefit of the research largely outweighs the mistakes. It also depends on an individual, some people will see the whole situation as immoral because of how they covered the whole situation for many years, while some will see it as a moral course because of all the good things that came out of that research.

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