How do religion and science clash in The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks?  

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The huge issue of ethics in biomedical research, including the unauthorized removal and use of human tissue, is one of the primary themes of the book. Those issues are brought home in many of the interactions the author had with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family.

While the theme of ethical...

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The huge issue of ethics in biomedical research, including the unauthorized removal and use of human tissue, is one of the primary themes of the book. Those issues are brought home in many of the interactions the author had with members of Henrietta Lacks’ family.

While the theme of ethical conflicts runs through the book, it is not always directly connected to religion per se. Chapter 17, especially deals with ethics, for the unauthorized use of diseased tissue, including the injection of cancer cells into unknowing patients. The author traces such procedures back to Nazi experiments on Jewish prisoners. It also follows these types of procedures in the U.S. after the war in light of the Nuremberg Code and the Hippocratic Oath. These developments and related lawsuits helped make informed consent a standard legal requirement.

Within the Lacks extended family, one of Henrietta’s sons-in-law, James Pullum, is a preacher, and the family members are Christians. Their concern after finding out that Henrietta‘s cells had been taken includes the violation of her body’s integrity. James also includes Rebecca Skloot in a church service, something new to her, having been raised Jewish-agnostic. Gary, her daughter Deborah’s nephew, sometimes channels Jesus and at one point appeals to God to lift the burden of the cells from the troubled Deborah. He gives Rebecca a Bible, and explains to her about the different beauties of heavenly and earthly bodies (Chapter 36).

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There is a clash between science and religion on a number of levels in Henrietta's story as told by Rebecca Skloot:

  • personal experience (humanity taken advantage of)
  • spiritual belief (spirits intervening, voodoo spirits, etc)
  • questions of immortality (God, the Creator v. Science, the Creator)
  • questions of justice and equality (Mo line, Carrel, Henrietta)
  • hybridization of cells (mad scientists)
  • large-scale manufacture of human cells for study (Salk's polio vaccine)

In Christian religion, which is followed by the Lackses, humanity is sovereign, being endowed with dignity. To take body cells without consent, then to give them away or to sell them to the scientific community for scientific purposes violates sovereign human dignity. The Lackses expressed their opinion throughout their ordeal over Henrietta's cells that negative events happened as a sign of God's or Henrietta's or some other spirit's displeasure and intervention. Though reflecting superstition, these opinions are demonstrative of the clash between religion and science.

The biggest question to arise out of the clash between science and religion is over the right to immortality: Is God the sole creator of immortality, since humanity is mortal, or can science rightly lay claim to creation of immortality? This is a theological and ethical question similar to some confronting us today in relation to stem cell research and cloning. Where does God's divine right to create immortality end and the acquired right of science pick up?

Associated with this is the question of religious versus scientific justice and equality. What would Henrietta have said had she known what Gey was doing with her cells? We know that when she learned one of treatments left her unable to bear children, she said she would not have consented to undergo it if she had known. We also know that when John Moore learned about what Golde was doing with his spleen cells--creating an immortal Mo line of cells--he felt outraged and dehumanized. Although the California Supreme Court disagreed with him, Moore felt, as probably Henrietta would have felt, that replicating his cells, using them in multiple studies, and selling them for profit was a demonstrable injustice and demonstrably represented inequality.

Similar questions arise from the clash between religion and science in consideration of the hybrid cells that were eventually made from the HeLa line. Scientists produced cells that were a hybrid of animal and human (Henrietta's HeLa cells). On the other hand, though the clash is still evident, no one wants to argue with the results Salks achieved from mass manufacturing HeLa cells in order to win a breakthrough against polio as a result of the 1951 polio epidemic. On the one hand, religion and ethics condemn mad science that uses human cells for its own purposes, especially when without permission or compensation, while on the other hand, there are life changing breakthroughs like the one Salks enjoyed despite the clash between religion and science.

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