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A Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


The primary theme explored in the controversial book of Rebecca Skloot is the degrading way the black people are treated in the United States ever since the period of segregation. Specifically, the author puts emphasis on the issue of unethical extraction of tissue or cell sample for research. The author also delves into other important themes such as the prevalence of domestic abuse among African American families and medical exploitation. The combination of family history, science, and the ethical and legal consequences are disturbing.
The main character is Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished, black cultivator of tobacco. Cervical cancer took his life in 1951 at Baltimore. Yet, she is described in the book as a heroic character due to her unknowing contribution to the development of cancer research. The other major characters are her immediate family members, her husband, who is also her cousin, and her children, who all grew up in financial hardship.

Implication of Ethical Leadership and Cultural Competence

The issue of ethical leadership in research concerning remaining samples furnishes the book with discussions of major medical controversies. It is shown in the book that human research is outrageously led in the United States, governed by rigid explanations and the use of regulations with little or no consideration of the wellbeing or interest of the human subjects.
Another interesting issue explored in the book is cultural competence. The author strongly illustrates the organized racial discrimination in the United States in the initial period of the twentieth century. It is interesting to think that the cultural competence of the African American people (e.g. the way they express themselves, their lifestyle before and today) that is portrayed in the book is not olden, but contemporary.

The Seven Revolutions

The seven revolutions are knitted into the story either implicitly or explicitly.

Population: The story projects a remarkable increase in global population due to the insistent medical pursuit for a cure for cancer. Expectedly, since the developed countries are the pioneers of this medical revolution, they are the ones confronted with abrupt increases in overall population.

Resource Management: In relation to population, the book explores the issue of resource management by illustrating that the availability of scarce resources is not really the problem, but instead the distribution and allocation. This problem is shown in the wide gap between the socioeconomic status of African Americans and White people.

Technology: The story explores the feat of biotechnology, or advancements in medicine which would create a reservoir of cures for serious illnesses, like cervical cancer.

Information and Knowledge Flows: The author shows that access to important scientific or medical knowledge and information has been exclusively given to those with high educational achievement. This gap creates bigger forms of social inequalities.

Global Economic Integration: The transfer of medical knowledge has been made possible by developments in technology, primarily in the arena of communications. It is indirectly stated in the story that even though medical advances will likely promote global integration it will give substantial economic power to countries dominating this medical revolution.

Conflict: This is explored in the rift between the medical institution and the family of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other families supposedly exploited by the medical community, concerning the ethical underpinnings of unauthorized extraction of tissue or cell samples from the dead. It becomes increasingly apparent that this practice of unauthorized, unethical cell or tissue extraction will be widely accepted as long as it is done with a grand purpose.

Governance: These emerging conflicts between the medical community and individuals, families, or racial groups will be ever more overseen by various entities of governance, such as international organizations, corporations, NGOs, and governments.


Modern cultures have its individual forms of deceitful narrow-mindedness. The revered value of informed consent by the ethical community will make anyone wonder: what should take precedence, the patient’s right to know and give or refuse consent, or the objective of the medical community to save lives?

Skloot, R. The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishers, 2010.

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