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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot
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After reading chapters 15–17 in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, what does the term "informed consent" mean? Do you think that it is important to have informed consent? Why or why not?

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The term "informed consent" means that a subject of healthcare intervention or research gives their permission for treatment based on an understanding of all the relevant factors involved.

This means that the clinician concerned must explain to the patient exactly what is involved in the course of treatment they propose. If, for whatever reason, the patient does not consent to such treatment, then, under the principle of informed consent, it cannot take place.

By the same token, if the patient allows healthcare professionals to go ahead with treatment, but they have not been fully informed about the relevant procedure and what it entails, then we have consent, but not informed consent.

Informed consent is an important principle because it is based upon respect for the autonomy of the individual. Ultimately, it is the patient's body that is affected by treatment, some of which can be quite invasive or involve serious risks and potential side effects. And so it is only right and proper that they are the one who gets to decide what treatment they should undergo. It is the patient's body, and so it is the patient's decision.

If informed consent were not forthcoming, then we'd have a situation whereby medical professionals would be imposing a course of treatment that may not always be in the patient's best interests. Violation of this vital principle of medical ethics calls to mind numerous aberrations from the none-too-distant past, when experiments were carried out on unsuspecting patients, many of them poor or from racial minorities, whose long-term health was damaged as a result.

The notion of informed consent is ably illustrated by the case of Henrietta Lacks. She did not give the medical authorities informed consent to remove her cells. Her family didn't even know about the existence of her cells until twenty years after her death.

Henrietta's cells were removed when she was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer. Doctors believed that these cells could live and grow, thus revolutionizing the treatment of polio and cancer, among other ailments. And though they were right to think this was the case, criticism can still be made of their actions as violating Henrietta's moral autonomy and agency as a human being.

Here we see one of many examples in the medical field in which there is a clash between vitally important goals that raises profound questions of medical ethics.

On one hand, there is the goal of treating serious illness. On the other, there is the goal of protecting the rights of the individual. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, the clinicians concerned chose to pursue the former goal in violation of the latter. In doing so, they may have advanced the cause of medical science, but they did so at the cost of a significant breach of privacy and autonomy.

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