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The Change in Medical Ethics in Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Abstract

This paper explores how medical ethics have revolutionized since the 1950s to now. In the 1950s, doctors had the liberty to do whatever they pleased with patients- informed consent or patient confidentiality was completely disregarded. Through recent articles such as that of Beskow’s and Truog’s, the reader can witness how cases such as Lacks’ have promoted change in the medical field regarding the patient’s role when it comes to choosing whether they would like to take part in studies or not and what steps doctors need to take before going through with removing samples from a patient- among the first things in the process includes making sure the patient is explained everything in a way that they understand.

Henrietta Lacks: Medical Ethics

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Her name is Henrietta Lacks. Though she is hardly recognized despite having had contributed to science in the most astounding of ways- leading to the development of vaccines, allowing genome mapping to be studied, and helping doctors provide better care for cell culture and more. This is mainly because neither she or her family were aware that her cells were taken from her. Lacks’ case is the most prominent among others that happened during her time, her story brings to question the ethics regarding medicine in the 1950s and external sources explain how her case has created a pathway for change in medical ethics today.

Lack’s cancer was one of a kind, from beginning to end. When Henrietta initially had a pap smear, a cervical screening that checks for any abnormalities in the cervix, her results came back clear. To doctors and her surprise, Henrietta had a rare case of high risk HPV, “a virus which infects skin cells” (“Abnormal Pap Smears and HPV,” n.d., para. 1). This virus “infects the skin cells in the cervix, it can cause the cells to change and become abnormal” (“Abnormal Pap Smears and HPV,” n.d., para. 1). In the case of Henrietta, having HPV caused her cells to mutate- they were able to reproduce at a very fast pace and they never died off. At the time, discovering HeLa cells was like winning the lottery since researchers had been trying to both keep cells alive outside the human body and most importantly, reproduce them. It was because of this, that Dr. Guy was so fond of HeLa cells upon learning they were able to stay alive in a lab under specific conditions and reproduce at a very fascinating rate. HeLa cells were going to revolutionize the medical field.

Through research and close ties with Lacks’ family, Rebecca Skloot wrote a one of a kind novel that honors Henrietta Lacks and her contribution to medical science. While doing that, this remarkable novel most notably brings attention to one of the biggest controversies in the medical field of all time and questions the ethics behind withdrawing Henrietta’s cells without her consent or acknowledgement of any sort. Skloot brings this doing into question when she mentions how it was common for doctors during this time to utilize “patients from the public wards for research, usually without their knowledge” (Skloot, 2010, p 29). At the time, doctors, especially those that worked in public or colored hospitals, believed it to be a form of payment for their time and dedication to taking care of them. They put their selfish desires first and withdrew a part of a human’s anatomy with them to conclude research and so much more. Doctors were given the liberty to advance in the medical field without giving credit where it was due, they claimed all of the success. Regardless of the impact, good or bad, it was unethical for doctors to utilize patients without their knowing. In a case like this, you don’t step on a man’s property unless you’d be okay with him stepping on yours. Skloot’s snarky comments and lack of censorship sparks the reader with questions- were doctors not raised to ask for permission, to say please when they want to get a hold of something that doesn’t belong to them.

A long time after the world learned about Henrietta Lacks, people began to question the ethics behind what happened to her. Her story would now become a “catalyst for policy change” as informed consent would not be brought into question as well as patient confidentiality (Beskow, 2016, p. 395). “Informed consent describes a process for enabling individuals to make voluntary decisions about participating in research with an understanding of the purpose, procedures, risks, benefits, and alternatives” (Beskow, 2016, p. 397). Had informed consent been a regular practice in the 1950s, Henrietta would have gotten the respect she much deserved as a person and would have gotten the choice to decide whether she wanted to participate in this study. This practice developed after her case when people realized that what researchers did to Lacks’ interfered with “legal concepts of property rights, ownership, and invention (Beskow, 2016, p. 397). Now, due to cases such as Lacks, the medical field has undergone changes regarding ethics and patient consent. The patient’s confidentiality is to be respected, they have the sole decision to choose whether they would like to participate in studies while being informed about everything in a form that they will be able to comprehend. This has now turned into a legal matter and an oath that doctors must take when entering the field.

Moving on from only informed consent and making sure the patient is explained everything in a way that they understand, the act of paying a patient for their tissue has also been discussed in present day. If they agree to participate in a study and have contributed to science in a significant way, should the family receive a form of compensation? The answer is debatable, however Truog asserts the reader how this approach may be “ethically and practically problematic” (Truog, Keselheim, & Joffe, 2012, p. 4). Researches have decided that payment isn’t an option, tissue donations shouldn’t be accepted unless “patients have freely agreed to give the donation as a gift” (Truog, Keselheim, & Joffe, 2012, p. 4). What Lacks case has done for the medical field is astounding, what is also fascinating is how her case has been a catalyst for change when it comes to the ethics behind taking something away from the patient such as tissue and then using it for research. By discussing this freely, people are able to avoid conflict in the future regarding whether or not it was wrong or whether they should get something in return such as monetary compensation.

Lacks not only has revolutionized the medical field’s advances, but its ethic code as well. Her case has established a code of conduct that researchers worldwide should respect. Humans are crucial for medical developments, yes. However, they are people and have rights. They are capable of choosing and deciding what they would like to do with what they possess.

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