Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.
–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
GENRE: Nonfiction, Science
RATING: 5/5 stars
BACKGROUND: Henrietta Lacks is the woman responsible for the immortal cell line dubbed as “HeLa”; she was also a relatively unknown figure before this book went to press. Though Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells have made immeasurable contributions to science, and though her cells have been sent into space and have been exploded in nuclear bombs, Henrietta had no idea that her cells were taken and used in the cell culture field. Her cells were taken without her informed consent, a fact that has stuck with the Lacks children, who are unable to afford medical care despite their mother’s contributions to medicine. The fact that Henrietta Lacks was a poorly educated, African American woman adds a whole other dimension to the narrative. Rebecca Skloot examines Henrietta’s story, the morals and complexities of scientific research on humans, the importance of family, and above all else, the value of information.
THOUGHTS: I really liked the way this novel was written. With most nonfiction books, the author remains a distant third party; they are an expert, but not much beyond that. This is not true in this book, Skloot is an active party in this narrative. Although a lot of the book contains history, it also contains the present. Skloot did not just try and convey Henrietta’s story, but also the story of her descendants and of those facing similarly ethical issues concerning their own tissues and cells being used for science.
You get to go through Skloot’s research journey, which seemed notoriously hard. Few academic materials used Henrietta’s real name, and the Lacks family was so tired of reporters taking advantage of their mother and her history that they had stopped “talking”. However, with persistence and the unwavering belief that Henrietta’s story deserved to be told, Skloot managed to grow close to several of the Lacks family members. Skloot also succeeded in educating Henrietta’s descendants about Henrietta’s story; she let Henrietta’s children understand, for the first time, the legacy they inherited.
Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, is one of the most colorful characters in this narrative and essentially grew up without her mother. She is also a very important part of the story, and is crucial to the way that Skloot ties past events to present, so that the reader is not just reading a history but rather a personal account and a personal journey, both for Skloot and Deborah. This is what I loved about this nonfiction book the most: there are emotions that a reader would normally experience with fictional characters, and you also get to learn interesting things about the research field that you might not otherwise have learned in school.
The book raises difficult questions, especially about the ethics of research on human subjects. It seems as if it is still legal for doctors to keep parts of whatever cells you willingly part with during operations or other investigative treatments without your consent. This means that your cells could technically be used for research that you may not ethically agree to (on abortions, for instance) and could be profited off of, and you have no legal right to deny doctors the DNA you willingly gave up in the first place, nor would you be able to make any money off your own cells. This also means that your DNA, your personal medical information, is able to be legally stored at hospitals and biotech companies without your knowledge. Now, while there are many benefits for disease research presented in this system of doctors keeping blood and tissue samples of many of their patients, there are many moral and ethical issues still tied up in not giving patients’ the right to informed consent. So Henrietta’s story is still relevant today…because honestly, it could still legally happen to you if you live in the United States. And if anything, I think it’s better that people should be educated about this and know about it in case they ever do decide to take action and fight for the rights that they feel they deserve.