What is the main conflict in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot?  

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The main conflict in Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks could be said to be that between the medical community that profited handsomely from Henrietta’s cells following her death and Henrietta’s family and heirs, who had been kept in the dark regarding their loved one’s cells...

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The main conflict in Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks could be said to be that between the medical community that profited handsomely from Henrietta’s cells following her death and Henrietta’s family and heirs, who had been kept in the dark regarding their loved one’s cells and who received nothing from the money made exploiting those cells. That conflict, while extremely important and unfortunate, is not necessarily the main conflict, however. The main conflict is between the medical community exploiting Henrietta Lacks’s cells and the public at large. The highly unethical practice of exploiting those cells without the consent or even knowledge of Lacks’s family is surpassed by the cavalier way medical researchers systematically exploited many other patients. In Chapter 17 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, titled “Illegal, Immoral and Deplorable,” Skloot describes the actions of Chester Southam, “a well-respected cancer researcher and chief of virology at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research.” While no doubt well-intentioned in his efforts at finding cures for cancer, Southam nevertheless acted unethically by injecting many more people with Lacks’s cancerous cells without those individuals’ knowledge or consent. As Skloot writes, “He told them he was testing their immune systems; he said nothing about injecting them with someone else’s malignant cells.”

This, then, could be the main conflict in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The struggles of Henrietta’s family to determine the extent of the duplicity on the part of the medical community consumes much of the book’s narrative. That is only appropriate. What makes the conflict between the medical community and the public at large more significant is the scale of betrayal.

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The conflict in this book is the lack of knowledge Henrietta Lacks's family had about the way in which her cells were used. When she was dying of cervical cancer in 1951, Henrietta Lacks's cells were harvested without her consent. She was a poor African American woman who was treated at a clinic at Johns Hopkins, and researchers there never informed her of the collection of her cells. Without her family's knowledge, her cells went on to proliferate in the laboratory, and her cell line figured prominently in research related to cancer, AIDS, polio, and other conditions. Though her family was poor and often lacked health insurance, they never received compensation for the benefits or profits her cell line generated over time. Until Skloot wrote this book, they were also largely unaware that Henrietta's cells had been collected and used extensively in research. The conflict is their complete unawareness of Henrietta Lacks's role in medical science.

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There are several conflicts in this book, and that is part of what has made it so successful. One of the main conflicts of the book, however, is whether Henrietta's family should have been given some control over her cells and once those cells were generating profits as a result of research, if money should have been paid to her family.

Henrietta's cells were taken and used for medical research without her informed consent, and then that same research resulted in vaccines, treatments, medications, and so on that have all yielded the manufacturers a great deal of money. Henrietta died before she would have ever been able to benefit from those proceeds, had they been offered, but her family was very much alive and could have benefited from some of the monies her cells helped to generate. In other words, hundreds of thousands of people benefited from the research done with Henrietta's cells, but her family had no idea they were even being used. Meanwhile, many of them struggled financially to make ends meet, often going without their own proper medical care. This leads one to question whether or not the donor of the cells or the surviving family have any right to compensation for the use of those cells.

This conflict is not unique to Henrietta and her family, however. Survivors of other major research studies, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies were never informed or compensated either, for example.

Fortunately, as a result of this book, the Lacks family has now been given limited rights to the HeLa cells and how they may be used in research.

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