What ethical issues do we see in "Part Two" of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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We can easily see a couple of ethical issues raised as early as chapters 12 and 13 of "Part Two" of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

At the beginning of chapter 12, Skloot notes that, after Henrietta's death, while her body was being "cooled in the 'colored' freezer, George Otto Gey, the scientist who produced the immortal HeLa cell line, wanted to do an autopsy to gather cell samples "from as many organs in her body as possible" in order to see if the samples would grow in the same way as the HeLa line (p. 88). However, he needed to get permission to do so from her husband now that she was dead. The author next dedicates many words to pointing out the irony that there was no law pertaining to taking tissue from the living, only law pertaining to the dead:

Though no law or code of ethics required doctors to ask permission before taking tissue from a living patient, the law made it very clear that performing an autopsy or removing tissue from the dead without permission was illegal. (p. 89)

Hence, the ethical issue being outlined here pertains to the ethical issue the whole book points to: should it be considered ethical to take cells from living humans without their knowledge or permission for the sake of science?

In chapter 13, Skloot expands on the above ethical issue by adding a new twist. Skloot next explains how the HeLa line was used in Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. In order to test the vaccine, Salk needed a mass quantity of human cells. To remedy the situation, the National Foundation for Infant Paralysis developed a literal HeLa cell factory at the African-American Tuskegee Institute. The African-American scientists and technicians being trained at the institute were able to produce "about 6 trillion cells--every week" (p. 96). While these cells made testing the polio vaccine possible as well as served as test subjects for many other viruses and bacteria, leading to many medical advances, author Skloot also notes that once Samuel Reader and Monroe Vincent took over the factory and built a more industrial-sized factory, the two men started selling the cells for profit.

Hence, the new ethical issue Skloot raises in chapter 13 concerns whether or not it is ethical to earn a profit from tissues that the donor's family had not granted them permission to use in the first place, and did not in fact have any knowledge of their being used. What's more, we must remember that Henrietta comes from a lower working-class African-American family. Hence, selling the cells for profit also certainly raises the issue concerning the fact that her family should have also been benefiting from the profit all along.

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