THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS
By Rebecca Skloot
Ms. Hen acquired this book from one of her hen friends, and even though she does not usually read nonfiction, she had heard it was a good book, so she took it home to her coop and let it sit for a while until she read it.
It is the story of an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951 from cancer that had spread throughout her body. Before she died, doctors took a sample of her cancer cells, which were different from any other cells the doctor had encountered. They did not die in the lab, but they grew and grew and never stopped. They were named HeLa, by George Gey, the scientist who discovered their potential. The name came from the first two letters of her first and last names.
Henrietta’s family did not find out what had happened with her cells until twenty years after she died. They never received any compensation and were not acknowledged until the scientists thought they could test the other members of the family to see if they might also have the genetic disposition to have the same kind of cells as Henrietta. The family did not understand what had happened.
The family knew that someone made money from Henrietta’s cells, and that made them angry. They knew that it was for the betterment of science, but they could not afford health insurance for themselves. Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, who never knew her mother, became an embittered and sickly person because of what she learned about her mother’s cells. She tried to learn about her mother’s cells, but she never received the education to be able to understand the complexities of the problem.
Ms. Hen is not that interested in science, but this book was written in a way that made it easy to read. She especially liked the story of Dr. Alexis Carrel, a French surgeon who attempted to grow an immortal chicken heart. Carrel won the Nobel Prize for inventing a blood-vessel suturing technique, and his contributions to organ transplantation, but that had nothing to do with his chicken heart. Ms. Hen was excited that there was speculation that a chicken heart could be made out of a sliver of tissue, but in the end, Dr. Carrel was trying to invent immortality that could never happen.
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS is a story of science, racism and ethics. It poses the question through case studies along with HeLa, do people have the rights to the tissues in their own bodies? And if they don’t, why should scientists make money from the cells that are in our bodies? Courts again and again have decided with the scientists because they claim that when patients give up samples of their tissues, they no longer own the rights to those tissues.
Ms. Hen wants to own the rights to her own tissues because she doesn’t want what happened to the Lacks family to happen to her. Years of not knowing, anger and pain will not make up for the fact that their mother helped science. Science is not everything, according to Ms. Hen. The laws of science should not rule the entire world. People are first, and they should have the right to say what happens to the cells that come out of their bodies. Hens are also first, according to Ms. Hen, and they have the right to protest whatever they think is not right, which includes stealing cells and profiting from others.