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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot has several major themes, but not really a single central argument. It starts as a mystery concerning the cell line derived from Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Skloot was curious about the person behind the cells, and her curiosity was further piqued as she discovered how little had been known or written about the woman whose cells have been so important to science.
In her efforts to uncover the history of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot raises many issues of medical ethics. The first is how much or whether people can be said to own their genetic material. The next has to do with the nature of informed consent, and the way that the standards of informed consent are biased towards the educated middle classes. Another issue she raises is how unequal hierarchies of race, gender, and class play into the everyday practices of the medical community.
The central argument of the book is that the scientific community has an ethical obligation to respect the dignity, autonomy, and personhood of all subjects and individuals with whom it comes into contact. Accordingly, individuals cannot be made into subjects of scientific inquiry without their consent. And, when objects of scientific study (including, for example, the physical material scientists use within a labor try setting) are sourced from individual people, those individuals deserve to be made aware of such sourcing, and when possible they ought to be appropriately compensated.
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