In, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” Rebecca Skloot tries to tell the story of the woman behind the HeLa cell line and her family’s struggles with the science of her immortality. HeLa cell line was created at the time when bioethics was an unheard concept and the experimentation on African-American population was at its peak. Rebecca Skloot writes in a narrative fashion starting with Henrietta’s visit to John Hopkins Hospital to get her ‘knot in the womb’ looked at. The author then goes on to describe a bit about Henrietta’s life- as a child and an adult- in Clover, Virginia and then Turner Station. The book describes the revolutionary science made possible because of HeLa cells and the lack of ethical considerations during the research on the African-American patients and the mentally ill patients. Finally, a large portion of the book deals with the Lacks’ continuous struggle with understanding the science behind immortal cells and with the balance between privacy and notoriety.
Non-fictional writing is always a balancing act between keeping the facts correct and keeping the story interesting. Writing about science with bioethics being a primary concern in the book is always dicey. I definitely enjoyed having a mental debate about the ethical ramifications of the HeLa cells. Does anyone really have a complete right over their cells and tissues – especially when discarded; as with the HeLa cells which are from a cancerous cervical tissue? Science has come a long way from the plague epidemic of the middle ages to eradication of small pox by vaccinations; but a lot of it has been on the back of the unaware, vulnerable populations. Science has always exploited the easily available, vulnerable sections of society from kids to prisoners to sharecroppers. These immeasurable contributions have led modern science to where it is today and none of the scientific discoveries would have been possible with the regulations today. Of course, that doesn’t make all the wrongs done in the name of science right, but this ethical debate will never end, and it shouldn’t but that’s the story for another blog.
The sections of book relating to the Lacks’ ignorance and struggle about Henrietta’s immortal cell line- were the most uncomfortable for me. While the author tries to show that she was trying to help them tell their story, it felt as if she was exploiting them for the sake of the story (which probably was needed and is true). While reading the book, it felt that a connecting link was missing which makes the reader feel deeply about the characters and their struggles. In spite of spending many years trying to understand and write about Lacks’, the reader feels the disconnect between the author and her subjects. The only section of the book that didn’t come off ‘manufactured’ was the section about Elsie Lacks and the research on epileptic patients. Also no one can deny the fact while HeLa launched many careers and discoveries; Henrietta’s family continues to fight for doctors and insurance money. But again the chances of the family ever receiving any kind of monetary help for the cells are nil.
Overall, for those interested in the science behind the HeLa cell line I am sure there are better books out there. For others who want a humanitarian story, probably this is worth a read.