I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that Rebecca Skloot’s amazing book, The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks, is on the bestsellers list, and has been for weeks. In it, Skloot gives us one of the most captivating and in-depth investigations into the intersections of race, science, and health that has ever been written.
Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, came down with a nasty case of cervical cancer in the early 50s. As she was getting treated at the “colored” ward at John Hopkins, the doctor took a sample from her cervix without her consent–as was the practice at the time. That one little sample would prove to change the whole world. Lacks’ cells would become the first “immortal” human cells–continuously dividing and living on, despite the fact that Lacks died long ago. Her cells have contributed to so many scientific discoveries, including the polio vaccine, and even traveled into outer space.
Henrietta’s cells have traveled far and wide, but her own family still struggles getting adequate health care. Skloot goes on a decade-long journey to understand who Lacks really was, how her family has fared, and all the ethical issues that this story so painfully illustrates.
Many of the ethical questions brought up by this incredible book remain unanswered: Who owns our bodies? What is our debt to science? How do we protect the most vulnerable among us from exploitation? What does consent really mean when people have such differential educations in this country?