What is the central argument in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot argues that the medical community cannot exploit people to further their research but rather must require informed consent and respect all people who are involved in contributing to their research. 

Skloot's argument rests on the case of a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Lacks died from incurable cervical cancer in 1951, and scientists took cells from her cervix without ever asking for consent from her or her surviving family. These cells were sent to scientists all over the world and formed the basis for many scientific studies.

The cells are referred to as HeLa cells—after the woman they came from. Howard Jones and Richard TeLinde, doctors at John Hopkins, took cells from Lacks without asking for permission; doing so wasn't required at that time. They gave those cells to George Gey, a scientist who used them to create the first line of immortal cells in the world.

Still, her family didn't know how her cells had been taken, distributed, and used. All her cousin Day was told was that an autopsy might help protect the family if any of them also ended up having cancer. 

The HeLa cells did a lot of good in the world. For example, they were the cells that Jonas Salk used when he needed to test his polio vaccine. Skloot traces the movement of the different HeLa cells through many labs and scientific discoveries. She also explains how the HeLa cells ended up contaminating other cells—which is how the Lacks family finally found out that the cells taken from Henrietta were being used around the world.

Ultimately, Skloot argues that the medical community has a responsibility to its subjects and that informed consent is absolutely necessary and ethical. This is clear both from her description of the use of HeLa cells and from the story of the Lacks family and how many times they were misled or and mistreated by the medical community. 

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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