portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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Where does the following quote appear in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and what is its significance?

“She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?”

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This quote appears on page 168, approximately halfway through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The significance of this quote is that Henrietta Lacks, despite the importance of her biological cells to society at large, herself remained mired in poverty. This shows the contrasts between what a person can contribute, even if not through their own efforts, and the rewards that society offers to a person. In this particular case, Henrietta Lacks contributed (despite not even giving her consent) some of her cells to scientific researchers and did not receive direct remuneration.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, journalist Rebecca Skloot describes a cell line from the book's namesake, the cell line called HeLa, which scientists have used extensively to understand diseases. The resulting research produced numerous important scientific discoveries.

In addition to the contrast of the contributor of stem cells residing in poverty despite her stem cells achieving renown, one can note the contrast between an African American woman and the European American men who used her cells without her permission. The latter often achieve larger amounts of wealth and renown through the privilege and respect society offers them—even if the discoveries at hand here would not have been possible without Henrietta Lacks.

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This quote appears on page 168 of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is spoken by Lawrence, one of Henrietta's sons. It refers to the reality that science benefited from the cells harvested from Henrietta's body that went on to form the HeLa cell line. While many of the research scientists who collected her cells did not benefit from them financially, the scientists certainly collected honors and renown from her cells. Her cells were used in breakthrough medical discoveries related to AIDS, cancer, and other areas of research.

However, Henrietta's family was left out of any benefits resulting from their mother's cells. Most likely, she herself did not know that her cells were being collected, and her family did not know until many years later that her cells were being used in research. At the time the book was written, her family lived in poverty, and the irony was that they didn't even have health insurance. This disparity points to several issues. First, people did not receive consent when their cells were collected for research, and they were not informed about future uses for the cells. African-American people such as Henrietta Lacks were in particular not consulted about their own medical treatment and were not consulted when they were used in medical experiments in the past. In addition, health care in the United States still does not benefit everyone. While some (wealthier people, often white) are the recipients of privileges and higher standards of care, many poor and African-American people are not able to benefit because they do not have insurance or the right kinds of insurance. 

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