Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

My school’s Upper School read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I initially picked this book up some years ago, but something interrupted my reading, so I wasn’t able to finish it. I had always wanted to go back and finish it, so I was glad of an opportunity.

If you are not familiar with the book (though probably most people are by now), it’s the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family (as well as how Rebecca Skloot obtained Henrietta’s story). Henrietta Lacks was a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951. She had cervical cancer. Her doctor excised tissue samples including both normal cells and cancer cells. Her cancer cells, known to science as HeLa, became the first immortal cell line. It has been used to create the polio vaccine, and also conduct research in AIDS, various forms of cancer, and innumerable other projects. Henrietta Lacks’s family, however, did not know about the research done with her cells, nor did they benefit monetarily from their use. This book explores not only the story of Henrietta Lacks’s contribution to science but also the ethical dilemma introduced by lack of informed consent, as well as racism and poverty.

This book raises some interesting questions. I found it fascinating. I love reading about people’s stories. However, the story, in this case, is in the hands of a white woman who is no part of the Lacks family. Some have argued she blurred the line of objectivity toward one’s subject in how close she became with the Lacks family, particularly Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. I have also heard others argue that Skloot took advantage of the Lacks family as much as Johns Hopkins did. I would argue she was not going to obtain the story without blurring that line, and it’s also possible that family members would not have been able to tell the story without Skloot’s interest and help. Still, it’s an important consideration in terms of what happened to Henrietta Lacks’s cells. The cells are outside of the control of the family, and many argue that it’s too hard to figure out how to compensate the Lacks family, who have struggled in poverty and often (ironically) without health insurance. Anyone can order a vial of HeLa cells online, but the Lacks family receives no part of the profits on those sales. HeLa cells have benefited humanity tremendously, and a great deal of good has come from the research done with them, but very little consideration has ever been given to her family. For instance, Henrietta Lacks’s genome was released a few years ago, though it was later withdrawn after the Lacks family voiced concerns about privacy. In this era, when information like that is out there, it’s impossible to put back in the bottle. Henrietta Lacks’s medical records have also been released. It’s a shame the Lacks family has been treated the way it has, and though it’s hard to say whether or not the treatment would have been different had she been a white woman with the means to pay for her healthcare, my personal belief is that her race and class played a role in how she and her family were treated. It’s still true that once tissue is excised from our bodies, it is no longer considered ours, and doctors and scientists can do whatever they like with it. I suspect that will change some time down the road, but right now, case law says we do not own our tissue once it’s no longer part of our body. Think of all the times you may have had blood drawn, or a biopsy. Or even signed up for 23 and Me or a similar DNA site. In fact, the agreement you make with 23 and Me is that your DNA can be used for research, and you don’t get your results about family, ancestry, or health information without making that agreement.

This books definitely exposes interesting ethical issues in science and medicine, and it finally tells the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, and I think both stories needed to be told. I really enjoyed reading the book. It raised a lot of questions and made me think.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I am counting this book for the Backlist Reader Challenge, as I have been meaning to go back and read it after starting it years ago. This time, I started over at the beginning rather than pick up where I left off, which turned out to have been a good idea since I read the book quite some time ago.

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Teaser Tuesdays: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My teaser:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“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.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, p. 89

I am breaking the rules and just sharing one. And it’s not random either. I highlighted it on my Kindle. However, it is the one sentence I’ve read so far that perfectly captures the ethics issue at the center of the book. I picked up this book, though it’s been on my to-read list for a long time, because my school is considering it as an all-school read, and I am on the committee to determine which book we select. I really like it. I am wondering if a ninth grade boy would like it, but I think a lot of our students would enjoy it, and there is much to discuss: bioethics, racism, poverty, and class… I am really enjoying the book so far.

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WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesday—April 27, 2011

WWW Wednesdays

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

I am currently reading [amazon_link id=”0307588653″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution[/amazon_link] by Michelle Moran, [amazon_link id=”039332902X” target=”_blank” ]The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History[/amazon_link] by Rebecca Fraser, [amazon_link id=”0143057812″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (audio book), and [amazon_link id=”0199537259″ target=”_blank” ]The Man in the Iron Mask[/amazon_link] by Alexandre Dumas via DailyLit. I am enjoying the first three very much, but the fourth is not grabbing me. I hope it does soon because I so enjoyed [amazon_link id=”0451529707″ target=”_blank” ]The Count of Monte Cristo[/amazon_link]. The narrator for The Shadow of the Wind is exceptional.

I recently finished reading [amazon_link id=”0060558121″ target=”_blank” ]American Gods[/amazon_link] by Neil Gaiman (review) and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning (review).

My next book will probably be [amazon_link id=”0670021040″ target=”_blank” ]Caleb’s Crossing[/amazon_link] by Geraldine Brooks. I won an ARC on Goodreads. The lastest Jasper Fforde, [amazon_link id=”0670022527″ target=”_blank” ]One of Our Thursdays Is Missing[/amazon_link], is calling my name. At some point, I want to return to [amazon_link id=”0812977149″ target=”_blank” ]Finn[/amazon_link] by Jon Clinch. I have a few books on my Kindle that I’m interested in reading, too: [amazon_link id=”B004R1Q9PI” target=”_blank” ]The Secret Diary of a Princess[/amazon_link] by Melanie Clegg, a few Austen sequels, and some good nonfiction, including [amazon_link id=”0316001929″ target=”_blank” ]Cleopatra: A Life[/amazon_link] by Stacy Schiff, [amazon_link id=”0385489498″ target=”_blank” ]Marie Antoinette: The Journey[/amazon_link] by Antonia Fraser, [amazon_link id=”1400052181″ target=”_blank” ]The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks[/amazon_link] by Rebecca Skloot, and [amazon_link id=”1439107955″ target=”_blank” ]The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer[/amazon_link] by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

So what about you?

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