In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which characters act in an ethical manner and which characters do not?
One the major themes of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is ethics and morality. Determining which characters acted ethically can be subjective. The laws governing informed consent had not yet been established at this time. So, although, Henrietta's doctor, Dr. Howard Jones, did not act illegally when he took a sample of her cancerous cells without her permission, it can be argued that he acted unethically.
Dr. Jones then gave the cells to Dr. George Gey, who, along with his assistants, cultivated the first immortal cell line. Dr. Gey did not want to commodify his discovery. He sincerely wanted to find a cure for cancer, and selflessly shared his findings with the scientific community. In this way, I believe he acted ethically. However, once he had discovered that her cells were extraordinary, he seemed to have forgotten that she was an actual human being. Soon after Mrs. Lacks's death, Dr. Gey and Johns Hopkins Hospital convinced her husband, David Lacks, to consent to an autopsy he had previously rejected. They told him that it could prevent his children from getting sick in the future. This was an outright lie. Dr. Gey wanted more samples from Henrietta's corpse. This was extremely unethical. They played on David's lack of education to get something that they wanted.
Another person who attempted to use the Lacks' lack of education for their own professional gain was Susan Hsu. She was the assistant to Victor McKusick, and they wanted to draw blood from Henrietta's family members for research purposes. Hsu did not get informed consent to draw blood. The family assumed she was attempting to help them when her only goal was to use their blood in more research.
The entire scientific community benefited from HeLa cells, and there are countless others who exploited the Lacks family and Henrietta Lacks herself along the way. However, Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book and one of its main characters, is one notable exception. She took great pains to educate the family, to be honest and compassionate, and to honor Henrietta's life in a way many had never even considered. She humanized and immortalized the woman herself in some small way, attempting to undo many of the injustices visited upon Mrs. Lacks and her family over the years. The time Skloot spent with Mrs. Lacks's daughter, Deborah, showed her desire to be honest and ethical. She made sure that Deborah's questions were answered honestly. She took Deborah into laboratories and hospitals to increase Deborah's scientific knowledge base. Skloot also started the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help Mrs. Lacks' descendants, many of whom are still living in poverty, with education and medical bills. I believe she is one example of a character in the book who behaved ethically.
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