“The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks” Part 3 Summary and Analysis
Beginning in Part 3 of Rebecca Skloot’s book, Chapter 23 details the realization that the family experiences that Henrietta Lack’s cells are being used for biological research and are being sold. Conversely, the chapter tracks the story of how the medical professionals who had recently discovered the contamination problem that has been related in the prior summary paper that was submitted could be solved. The medical researchers decided the best means to solve the contamination issue would be to obtain genetic markers from Henrietta Lack’s family as a means of specifically determining which cells were contaminated and which cells were not. Naturally, doing this would mean that the family would come in contact with the researchers as well as the knowledge that Henrietta’s body biological matter was still very much alive and being used for medical research.
When the medical professionals contacted the family to obtain consent to take blood samples in order to track the genetic markers, a Chinese graduate student was employed to do this and was not fully able to transmit the necessary information to the family. Upon a better understanding of precisely what was going on, the family divided between those that sought to understand what specifically was being done to Henrietta’s cells and how and those that wished to be compensated for the large amount of money that had been made from the biological matter that had already been sold by a host of medical labs.
Likewise, the story goes on to discuss the means by which new and developing laws would affect the treatment of an individual’s biological matter both before and after one’s death. The author relates the case of an individual who signed a consent form to give up any and all rights to his spleen and the subsequent cells that might be cultured from it. In this way, the story tracks the developments of medical law and the ways in which biological and tissue began to develop a strict set of laws that governed their usage. Returning the story to the Lacks family, the author relates how Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, remarried and Zakariyya was in and out of prison and only able to hold work intermittently. Furthermore, the additional children suffered from narcotics abuse and minor run ins with the law. Meanwhile, Deborah continues to research what has happened to her mother and how the cells are being used. A subsequent documentary by the BBC helped to acquaint the family, due to the fact that they were interviewed, regarding precisely what had transpired with the HeLa project. Lastly, the author relates the way in which the legal back and forth between John’s Hopkins and the family served to add even more stress and concern to the family with regards to how they felt they had been manipulated from the very start.
This particular section of the book is of vital importance as it is the part in which the family begins to come to a more full and complete realization of what the HeLa project actually entailed as well as the ways in which the medical community would resort to intimidation and threats of lawsuits in order to keep them quiet and complacent with regards to the injustices that had been done in the past. For this reason, the author relates a sad story of how lawyers such as Colfield sought to take advantage of the situation and exploit the family while all the time feigning to be pursuing the case out of a mutal shared interest in seeing justice done (Skloot 182). This introduction to the way the legal system in fact worked against rather than for them as well as how the legal system had been powerless to help to define the ways in which the medical community could operate the HeLa project was just further evidence to the family that they were outclassed by a wily system that sought only to exploit their family member for profit and gain while at the same time denying any of the proceeds of such a project to the rightful heirs of Henrietta’s family. Furthermore, Skloot discusses the dire importance of the medical laws that began to be put into place in and around the same time that this conflagration was occurring as a means to better define and understand the bioethics of tissue and cell research that had previously been conducted without the implied consent of the patient/family members in question.
Moreover, by examining the situation of the HeLa project from the perspective of legality and the perspective of the family members involved, Skloot is able to bring the topic to the reader in a way that they might not otherwise engage with it. As the dichotomy between the lawyers, the medical professionals, the researchers, and the concerned family members develops, the reader is made aware of the infinite complexities that surround such a issue as that of the bioethical treatment of the cells within the HeLa project.
Skloot, Rebecca. The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011.