The Immortal Legacy of Bioethics

Reluctantly entering the colored public ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, Henrietta Lacks simply expected treatment for her cervical cancer. What she did not know, however, was that the doctor would extract a sample of her cervical cells for research purposes, and that this sample would eventually grow into an immortal cell line that revolutionized cell biology and genetics. The beginnings of a fiery ethical storm were brewing.

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The development of HeLa cells paved the way for implementing ethical practices in medicine. Photo by Angela Chau.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot details the moral conflict involved with Henrietta Lacks’s cervical cells. A few weeks after her first radium treatment in 1951, Henrietta Lacks died due to her cervical cancer. However, her cervical cells continued to live on, replicating from the original sample removed from Lacks and becoming the first human immortal cell line eventually known as HeLa.

While Lacks’s family continued to live in poverty, unaware of their mother’s legacy, scientists greatly profited off her HeLa cells. Lacks’s cells contributed to the development of the polio vaccine, were sent to space and even were used for cloning. Twenty-five years after Henrietta Lacks’s death, researchers called Lacks’s family to obtain samples of their blood to map out the genes within HeLa cells, which was how Lacks’s family actually found out about the HeLa phenomenon. The moral implications of Henrietta Lack’s situation began to unravel. Was it fair that the family lived in poverty, while the scientific community reaped the benefits of their mother’s cells? What gave researchers the right to take their mother’s cells in the first place without her consent? Though Henrietta’s cells left a legacy on the scientific community, were the scientists justified in not disclosing the HeLa phenomenon?

As seen from Henrietta Lacks’s story, bioethics plays a major role in not only the medical field, but also within the scientific community as a whole. Biology classes in school tend to gloss over the ethical issues within the field, causing students to be generally unaware of the importance of bioethics. Many students at MVHS, desire to pursue a career within the STEM field, yet often do not heed the moral issues that give the field a completely new dimension. Junior Ivana Hsiao shares this opinion.

Classes should focus more on bioethics because it teaches us about real world issues and how students should think about and strive to resolve them,” Hsiao said.

Bioethics is important outside of science as well. A knowledge of bioethics helps students develop the moral judgment and ethical conscience that hard facts simply cannot convey.

“Even people who aren’t scientists are impacted by technology and medicine in many aspects of their lives, and I think they also should be reflecting on the ethics on some of these technologies and practices,” Dr. Leilani Miller said, a biology professor at Santa Clara University who also teaches courses in biotech ethics. “What I think is important is that we think about and talk about the ethics of these technologies as they are being developed and not afterwards.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks demonstrates the need to address bioethical issues as they are manifested. For example, the emotional distress caused to her descendants could have been avoided through better informed consent practices.

“[Lacks’] case actually caused our standard informed consent practices to be developed,” Miller said. “Informed consent was not standard practice back then, so the doctors that took her cells from her cervical cancer without her permission…weren’t doing anything that people thought was really wrong. In retrospect, we think it was horrible, but it turns out that that wasn’t really unusual back then.”

In addition, racial prejudice was an important factor of Henrietta’s suffering leading up to her death. Her distrust of the medical community due to racism, for example, led her to avoid suggested medical appointments and treatments. Henrietta even received inadequate pain medication during later stages of her cancer, as doctors believed that African Americans felt less pain. These issues illustrate how essential it is to acknowledge and address ethical issues as they come about in order to avoid injustice.  

More value should be placed on books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which connect both the sciences and the humanities to convey real-world issues that continue to impact our lives today. Often overshadowed by students’ desire to be successful in the field of biology, bioethics constitutes a vital aspect of the paths that they will take for careers as biologists or physicians. As advances in science continue to rapidly progress, bioethics inevitably leaves an immortal legacy alongside those developments.