Bioethical Issues in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Skloot


The book titled, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks authored by Rebecca Skloot is a non-fictional text that focuses on the life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot highlights that Henrietta Lacks is the owner of the HeLa cells that have defined the scientific discoveries of the past hundred years. Skloot got her initial acquaintance with the HeLa cells when she was sixteen during her biology class in college. After her teacher highlighted that, the HeLa cells belonged to Henrietta Lacks, she became interested in unearthing information about the woman. It happens that the cells had helped scientists register some of the most important milestones in science and medicine. As Skloot advanced in her education, she became more familiar with the HeLa cells. After ten years of intensive research on the family of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot authored this book. The author had realized that HeLa cells had gained popularity across the globe while the world had chosen to ignore the woman who was the owner of the cells. This essay will discuss the bioethics issues highlighted in Skloot’s book.

Skloot addresses critical bioethics issues that surround the HeLa cells. Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. Years before her death, she had sought medical attention from the St. Johns Hopkins Hospital. During her checkup, the doctor removed a sample of the cancer cells and an additional biopsy of her healthy cells. This occurred without Henrietta Lacks knowledge or consent. As the book reveals, the HeLa cells exhibited superior qualities and multiplied in cultures unlike other human cells. The superior qualities of these cells have enabled researchers to develop several vaccines, medications, and to understand the human genome in depth.

However, Henrietta Lacks’ family only became aware that their mother’s cells were still in existence and that researchers were using them in numerous ways. The fact that some researchers have made a lot of money from the cells made the issue more disturbing to the family.

Skloot takes the reader through the experience of the family, especially that of Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta. From the daughter’s experience, it becomes evident that using an individual’s tissues in research without any form of consent can have devastating effects on the patient’s family. Whereas researchers have been making money from the cells, Lacks’ family is still struggling in poverty. However, there are still numerous concerns about the ethical issues involved. The tissues that contained the HeLa cells qualified as medical waste during the woman’s checkup. This introduces a controversy in the entire to the entire issue. There have been serious debates on whether patients should have a say in how medical samples considered as wastes should be used after the patient’s treatment. It becomes more confusing that Lacks’ family cannot access any form of health insurance, although the cells that led to the development of numerous drugs belonged to their mother.


It is unfortunate that many scientists stole more cells from the family in an effort to make profits, when the cells were in high demand. The fact that the cells have been critical in understanding the human genome reveals a case of the intuition of privacy. With time, geneticists will sequence the family’s genome and publish it without their consent. Without doubt, the book exposes bioethical issues that need urgent addressing. Although the family appreciates the fact that the HeLa cells have been of critical significance in medical advances, they insist that scientists should obtain consent prior to using samples from an individual.

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