The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Questions and Answers
by Rebecca Skloot

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In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the author notes that Tuskegee Institute, site of the first HeLa production factory, was also home to the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study. How are these two projects similar?

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In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, we learn the story of how the medical research system abused Henrietta’s HeLa cells, taking them and claiming them as the property of doctors, researchers, and institutions while giving no credit or compensation to Henrietta or the Lacks family. The misuse of Henrietta’s cells started when she had a biopsy for cervical cancer at John Hopkins Medical Center. A sample of her cells was withdrawn without her consent, a common abuse of both African Americans and women in the early twentieth century. The lack of consent also meant a lack of knowledge because when the cells were then reproduced, marketed, and used as “immortal,” the Lacks family not only didn’t know about their use, but they received nothing in terms of compensation.

The issue of bodily autonomy and informed consent have been huge issues of abuse in terms of how the medical community treats African American patients. Ironically, the Tuskegee Institute would be the place to produce HeLa cells, as they are the same facility that did the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where African American men, who had tested positive for Syphilis, were not told they had the disease so that researchers could study the long-term effects. The study is notorious because it devalued the lives of African American men, an oppressed minority, for the sake of research.

In both cases, the life, privacy, and consent of African American patients were disregarded in favor of research needs. Both instances show how the bodies of African Americans are treated as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than treating them as people who require medical treatment and deserve to be informed about procedures and samples being taken from them.

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