Henrietta Lacks, Part 3: Immortality

Hi, Bookies:

Welcome back! Before we dive into this week’s discussion, I’d like to share some exciting news: Rebecca Skloot has agreed to answer questions! If there is anything that you would like to ask the author, please post your questions in the comments section by Thursday, April 21, at 11:59 p.m. EST.

In this week’s reading, Skloot introduces us to Mo, another cell line of both medical and financial importance. John Moore was diagnosed with hairy-cell leukemia in 1976 and, as a result, had his spleen removed. Moore’s doctor David Golde recognized that his patient’s cells produced rare proteins that would make them valuable to pharmaceutical companies. As a result, Golde started using Moore’s tissues to develop the cell line Mo. After the surgery, Moore flew from Seattle to Los Angeles every few months for seven years for “follow-up exams,” unaware that Golde actually needed these meetings to obtain more tissue samples for cell culture. Moore eventually sued Golde, and the case went through various trials and appeals before it landed in the Supreme Court of California. Though the court acknowledged that Golde was wrong for both failing to obtain informed consent and for taking advantage of his position as a doctor, Moore did not receive any financial compensation. According to the court’s decision, Moore no longer had rights to his tissues and cells once they were removed from his body. Giving patients’ property rights to their tissues, the court argued, would “destroy…economic incentive” and “hinder research.”

This decision doesn’t sit well with me. A blood test or biopsy needle, such as Henrietta endured, is a far cry from making someone believe that he needed to fly to a specialist multiple times a year, as Golde did with Moore. Gey also developed HeLa for medical research; neither he nor John Hopkins ever profited from the cell line. Golde, on the other hand, was purposely misleading his patient for the sake of developing a cell line that he would sell to a pharmaceutical company for a hefty profit. I think that Moore deserved compensation. Do you agree? Or do you find the court’s ruling to be fair?

Back in Baltimore, Deborah and Skloot have finally joined forces and are delving deeper into Henrietta’s life and legacy together. I was impressed by Deborah’s terms when she agreed to take part in the research: Deborah made Skloot promise to use Henrietta’s real name and to reveal the truth about Henrietta’s institutionalized eldest daughter, Elsie. There is something noble about Deborah’s conditions, especially when you consider that her siblings were unsupportive of Deborah’s decision to help Skloot without a financial incentive. After a lifetime of being kept in the dark about her mother and her sister, Deborah thought that learning about her family would be its own reward. Though Skloot couldn’t pay the Lacks family for their story, she did promise to set up an educational scholarship for Henrietta’s descendants if the book ever sold (a promise Skloot kept, according to the afterword). Do you think this was a fair bargain? Should Skloot have done more?

The last thought that I want to leave you with is about health insurance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 50 million Americans were without health insurance when surveyed between January and September of 2010. Henrietta Lacks was peppered with the hardships of living without health coverage (Day’s gangrenous feet and Sonny’s $125,000 debt for bypass surgery are both stirring examples). Skloot presents the reader with both sides of the debate around whether Gey had a right to take Henrietta’s cells in the first place and, once the cell line was created, whether the Lacks family had a right to the HeLa fortune. However, I think that Deborah cut right to the heart of this issue when she said:

“When people hear about my mother cells they always say, ‘Oh y’all could be rich! Y’all gotta sue John Hopkin, ya’ll got to do this and that.’ But I don’t want that. . . . Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”

Thank you all for reading along with me! I’ve enjoyed both Henrietta Lacks and being a part of the No Obligation Book Club more than I can say. I’ll be reading any comments you leave about Part 3, so please post your thoughts, feedback, and questions for the author—I look forward to reading them!

—Erin

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