Should Henrietta's family have been financially compensated? Explain. 

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an easy question to answer from the vantage point of a donor: the answer would be yes, and most people would agree with the donor. Members of Henrietta Lacks' family would agree as well, considering that any financial remuneration would have helped lift them out of poverty. After all, without the raw materials from donors, science would be helpless to work any medical miracles whatsoever. Many of the financial rewards gained by medical entities and corporations were only made possible by the quality of the HeLa cell line. Many people also believe that donors would be more willing to come forward if the promise of financial compensation became part of the informed consent process.

However, there have been some court cases where litigation brought by donors and family members for the purposes of claiming some sort of financial compensation proved unsuccessful. Why?

In the famous case of Moore versus Regents of University of California, Moore underwent a splenectomy to treat his hairy cell leukemia in 1976. Unknown to him, researchers had culled tissue samples from him to create a cell line which was eventually patented. The University of California allegedly profited commercially from the sale of the cell lines. The court eventually decided against Moore's conversion claim (contending that UCLA had "converted" his cell line into a profitable venture), holding that he had no ownership interest (rights) in his cells, as doing so would unfairly burden medical research. As with later court decisions, the court did find that the researchers had neglected to fulfill informed consent duties.

In rare cases, individuals have received financial remuneration for donated tissue. Take as an example individuals like Ted Slavin who developed high antibody titers after contracting Hepatitis B; he was able to sell his serum for $10,000/liter, thus providing him with an income for life. This is similar to instances when individuals have received compensation for renewable tissue in markets for blood, blood derivatives, breast milk, and sperm. Many in the medical community are contending that money should only be forked over in exchange for services rather than for the transfer of property.

During Henrietta's time, it would have been next to impossible for her family to seek financial compensation of any sort because informed consent laws had not yet been legalized. However, the debate for whether the Lacks family deserves compensation today still continues.

Hope this helps! Very good question.

Read the study guide:
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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