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Free The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Essay Sample

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This research paper looks at the story of Henrietta Lacks in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. It examines the historical, social, ethical, educational, scientific and spiritual perspectives of the situation of obtaining Henrietta Lack’s cells. According to the literature, a poor tobacco farmer had her cancer cells extracted without her consent way back in the year 1951. These cells that later became popularly known as the HeLa cells became very important in medical research studies. For instance, they were vital for the development of the polio vaccine, gene mapping as well as in vitro fertilization. Further, Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold for fortunes yet she remains largely invisible in the public arena. Worse still, her family cannot afford an insurance policy for her healthcare. This story tells a complex experience of medical, ethical as well as racial disparities. Basically, it encompasses the dark periods in the American history that saw several experimental procedures performed on the African American populations. (Smith, Van, 2002)

Educational and Research Purposes

The HeLa cells were used to make the initial tests on the polio vaccine. Till this date HeLa cells have been used for purposes of research into cancer, AIDS as well as gene mapping. Indeed, official statistics show that well over 60,000 scientific articles have been obtained from HeLa cell related research and that the number has kept increasing quite radically with a record high of 300 articles every month. This has indeed served to open up the field of medical research especially that related to the genetics. Currently, so much is known about the medical technology of virology and gene mapping. Although the family had been intended to be kept in the dark, the idea got into the public limelight as the benefits to the medical curriculum could not be concealed. As a matter of fact, the HeLa cells have proved more beneficial than initially thought and most of the people who initially opposed the idea are slowly buying it. It has been said that the HeLa cells can divide quite rapidly giving a large number of daughter cells provided that their conditions for growth are provided. This tremendous growth has seen these cells infect other cells within the laboratory with the same growth patterns making them hard to control. This has brought into focus the future of these cells and what they may portend to future research works by medical personnel.  (Scherer, William, Jerome, Syverton, George, Gey, 2008)

Social Perspectives

The story of the HeLa cells had tremendous social impacts on the family of Henrietta. For instance, her daughter Deborah was seriously devastated to learn that her mother’s cells were the subject of scientific studies in the laboratories. And with the increasing knowledge of gene cloning, the young woman continued to wonder if the scientists were cloning her mother and what that would imply to their family. As a matter of fact, the medical research team ought to have taken the initiative to let the family understand the medical dynamics surrounding the issue. This would not only be in line with social ethics, but would save Deborah of the several mind boggling questions she has to keep her imaginations alive on. According to Rebecca Skloot, the young lady is psychologically hurt when she learns that her mother’s cells would be infected with viruses and shot into the space. The impacts of this psychological torture are certainly grave on the lives of all members of this family. For instance, Deborah’s sister named Elsie died of mental complications in a mental institution at tender age of 15 years. This shows just how much the issue continues to affect the members of the family considering that it is something that could have been avoided. (Rebecca, 2010)

In addition, the idea of their mother’s cells being too important to medical research seriously haunts the whole family when they look at their own financial position as a family. They cannot comprehend how this could be possible when her immediate children continued to wallow in poverty, not even able to afford a medical cover. Furthermore, Henrietta herself does not receive the level of medical attention that is commensurate with a champion in the medical field. Ideally, any human in the shoes of the lady Henrietta would feel wasted and misused to learn that their cells are being manipulated for purposes that are not directly beneficial to them. This is certainly what the family and relatives of Henrietta would feel. Worse still, the fact that the debate would persist in the public is certainly disturbing as they are constantly reminded of the unfortunate situation whenever the issue comes up for debate. Essentially, the medical staff and the research team should have had a little more moral ethics to propose some financial benefits to the family at least to save face. (Watts, Watson, 2010)

 According to the research carried out on social anxiety disorders, this kind of situation had a great potential of causing the children a social phobia towards the medical practice or medical personnel in general. Ideally, such kind of social and emotional abuse at a tender age may cause someone to develop awkward behavior over time. As a result, they try to avoid this by creating subconscious fail safes like thinking through what goes on in their minds or what they say and trying to get a balance the perceived mistakes by adopting extreme behavior. This was a likely occurrence in the later lives of Henrietta’s children because what they went through at that age was clearly sociological abuse. Although it may be argued that the medical team had no obligations to explain to them the realities of their mother’s cells, it was only morally appropriate that they be informed.

Health Care Ethics

Right from the early times when the pioneer medical personnel took the Hippocratic Oath, the significant position held by the ethical considerations as concerning matters to do with living entities have earned an important place in the professional practice of medicine. Issues to do with respect for human life and the dire need to strike a balance between potential harm and potential medical benefits. In the case of Henrietta, both of these principles seem to have been met. The principle of respect for human life was obeyed because there is no direct evidence suggesting that Henrietta’s life was threatened by the extraction of her cancer infected cells. Further, the actions of the medical research team were in line with the desire to measure potential harm as relative to the potential benefits. As a matter of fact, the procedure they intended to pursue would have great impacts on global health care as well as help the medical fraternity understand the complex issues of viral infections and their effects on the human DNA that cause cancerous growths. This technically absolves the doctors of any professional misconduct although they remain as sinful in the court of the public opinion. (Smith, Van, 2002)

However, their observation of the healthcare ethics seemed not to be absolute. They did not respect Henrietta’s rights of self determination as is demanded in health care ethics. This principle which is contained in the Hippocratic Oath requires that any medical decisions made concerning one’s life must first seek their consent. From the story Henrietta, this important principle was overlooked by the research doctors as they made no attempts to seek Henrietta’s consent. Although the doctors might argue that she would not have consented whatsoever given her little knowledge concerning the technology, they should have informed a relative of hers or sent a psychologist to try to convince her on their behalf. It’s quite certain that ethical issues are not observed when a patient’s cells are extracted for medical research without seeking her approval. It becomes even worse when the revenues that accrue from this research serve no purpose whatsoever that has to do with the betterment of her welfare. Indeed, it’s ridiculous that Henrietta’s kids lack a medical insurance yet her cells bring huge sums of money to the researchers. (Watts, Watson, 2010)

Politics of HeLa Cells

The issue usually evokes a lot of political undertones as well as matters of social justice. The fact that Henrietta belonged to a minority group has further complicated the issue often making appear another example of racial prejudice. Many African Americans who happen to share the same heritage as Henrietta read so much politics of race to the extent that some people sought legal redress from the court of law. In its ruling, however, the Supreme Court of California considered the case that was popularly known as “Moore v. Regents of the University of California” null and void. According to the court, the cells of Henrietta were part of discarded tissue and that the cells could not be treated as a property of any individual. This technically allowed anyone in their possession to commercialize them like the medical researchers did. However, in the court of the general public the issue still draws more emotions than it evokes any passion. Perhaps in an attempt to appease the disgruntled, the researchers decided to name the immortal cells after Henrietta Lacks as a form of honor to the deceased. This may not have achieved much anyway because the emotions still run high especially among the African Americans who feel alienated. That is why several civil right group still attempt to have the cancer cells categorized a fresh so that it may be declared illegal to have been extracted without the patient’s consent. (Smith, Van, 2002)

The Church and Religion

The church has not been left behind in the raging debate about the cancerous cells of Henrietta Lacks. According to a good majority of the clergy the sanctity of life is not respected when any scientists modify cellular functions or manipulate their physiology. Indeed, the conservative religious groups heavily protested against the court ruling that suggested that extracting Henrietta’s cells was within the law. They argued the human body remains part of the human body even in death and should therefore be treated as their property. In this respect, the researchers should have consulted the woman Henrietta Lacks as is considered ethically right. Although their argument is more logical than it is legal, it should have been given serious consideration. This would be more appropriate considering the fact that Henrietta belonged to the church and had religious values that must be respected even in death. Indeed, this would make her children feel less of outcasts in the church and see them properly incorporated as members who strictly observe the religious guidelines held by the church. Furthermore, this is the constitutional requirement as regards freedom to hold certain religious values of one’s choice. (Masters, 2002)

Historical Perspectives

Though it remains as controversial, the case of Henrietta Lacks has seen several historical changes depending on the perceptions of the society concerning biotechnology. Since its discovery, this technology has had close relations with the society. The idea that began with industrial fermentation has become complex with genetic engineering being the new kid on the block. The progress has been marked with public resistance, paradigm shifts in the economic scene as well as redefined bases of political power. However, it was until 1975 that the debate largely picked up in a more serious note with the emergence of outspoken supporters of the new technology. Notably, the field of stem cell research remains a hot subject although the public is slowly accepting it. At least they would one day get to live with the idea that Henrietta’s case was a typical case of looking at the broader picture of the good of the entire society.  (Wang, Huang, Shou, 2006)

Economic Issues and Patents

Several troubling questions have been raised concerning the issue of whether the family of Henrietta Lacks should have the patent right or have significant financial claims on their mother’s tissues that were extracted by the researchers for purposes of study. Although the immediate doctor who extracted the cells did not make any financial gains from the cells, the fact remains that the cells were commercialized. This was due to their rapidity of replication and the fact that they never really died. In fact, the cells are bought and sold all over the world where they generate quite a fortune in profits for the researchers. However, the idea that Lack’s family has never seen the remittance of even a coin remains a historical wonder of the moment. They remained poor and without adequate education in spite of their mother’s cells being of high academic value for the world. Worse still, the attempt to conceal the information of their mother’s cells remains a social misfit that will never be socially justifiable in the recent future. (Watts, Watson, 2010)

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