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Until the book was published, no one knew much about Henrietta Lacks. Her family did not and does not benefit financially from the HeLa line of cells.
The book travels back and forth in time as it explores the author’s research into genetic research and the Lacks family. Going chronologically, one thing is clear. The family really never benefitted from the commercialization of Henrietta Lacks’s genetic material. In fact, the afterward notes that at the time the book was published there were still few laws regarding ownership of human cells.
As Skoot acknowledges, there are “important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class” raised in Henrietta’s story. In the introduction, she explains how she tried to address them fully.
…I’ve done my best to present them clearly within the narrative of Lacks’s story, and I’ve included an afterward addressing the current legal and ethical debate surrounding tissue ownership and research. (p. xiv)
The main point is that after Henrietta’s death, many people made a lot of money off of her cancer cells. She never consented to have these cells removed and used as scientific research, let alone being branded and sold. Although the name of the cell line, HeLa, does seem to acknowledge the cells’ origin, clearly most researchers were not aware. This was what interested Skoot enough to write the book in the first place.
Yes, Henrietta is immortal in a way. Her cells can exist without her, and have for decades. Yet her family still lives in poverty.
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