Henrietta Lacks: Ethics

714 words | 3 page(s)

The case of Henrietta Lacks created many legal, ethical and moral issues within scientific research. Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who died of complications from cancer. However, the cells taken from her cancerous tumor still live today. They were used to create the first immortal cell line for scientific research. This was done without the knowledge or consent of Ms. Lacks. As a result, the use of the cell line has created tremendous controversy within the scientific and medical community.

Twenty years after her death, her family was contacted for blood samples. This was to deal with contamination in the HeLa cells. They were not asked for informed consent for their blood samples. This was incredibly unethical and wrong on the part of the researchers. This action compounded the original ethical breach of the researchers. The researchers planned on using the blood samples in a form of scientific research. Individuals need to offer informed consent for any research to be considered ethical (Informed consent—FAQs, n.d.).

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It was also incredibly wrong for researchers to patent cells without the permission of an individual. Researchers appeared to develop an attitude that these cells were not the living aspect of a human being. Since they were working with the smallest part of a person, they appeared to compartmentalize their beliefs about these cells. However, as John Moore explained, it was a dehumanizing experience for him (Skloot, 2010, p. 201). This sums up the truth behind these cell lines. Just as someone cannot patent someone else’s thoughts without permission, cells should be viewed in a similar manner.

The California Supreme Court was incorrect. If tissues are removed with consent, one may argue that a researcher has the right to them. However, if tissues are removed without a person’s consent, they should be destroyed. This would only be ethical.

Unfortunately, 1951 was a time when the United States failed to understand that civil rights should be the right of everyone, regardless of skin color or racial/ethnic heritage. Due to this lack of social conscience, it is highly unlikely that this story would have even received any publicity at the time. Sadly, many in America would believe that Ms. Lacks, as an African-American, did not deserve any protection for her rights. While Americans at this time did criticize the Nazis for their treatment of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, they lacked any appreciation for the rights of African-Americans. This was clearly seen in the Tuskegee experiment. In 1951, the Tuskegee experiment was in the midst of its exploitation of African-Americans in the name of science. Even when society was not socially aware, one would have expected physicians to recognize the value of every human being, regardless of race. Sadly, this was not the situation (The Tuskegee timeline, 2013).

The story has been correctly interpreted today. There has been outrage regarding the abuse of this woman for the last sixty years. Today, she has received recognition for her contribution to science (The Henrietta Lacks Foundation, 2013). If Henrietta Lacks had been a white woman, her cells never would have been used without consent. Sadly, the manner she is being treated today is the way a white woman would have been treated in the 1950s. At this time in history, single, white women were given significant protections by society. Society believed that white women needed the protection and support of everyone.

Unfortunately, this view did not extend to African-American women. In reality, the cells of a white man would have been viewed with more respect and more autonomy than an African-American woman. Luckily, most of society has advanced beyond this racist and sexist thinking. At this point in history, most individuals would likely believe that the cells of all individuals deserve to be treated with the same respect and autonomy that the person deserves. Granted, not all individuals share this enlightened thinking. For instance, the Supreme Court of California.

  • Informed consent—FAQs. (n.d.). Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved October 27, 2013, from: http://answers.hhs.gov/ohrp/categories/1566
  • Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing.
  • The Henrietta Lacks Foundation. (2013). Retrieved October 27, 2013, from: http://henriettalacksfoundation.org/
  • The Tuskegee timeline. (2013, September 24). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 27, 2013, from: http://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/timeline.htm

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