Saturday, February 13, 2010

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

I've been taking advice from PBS, reviews and friends and ordering the books from the library. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but in the case of Rebecca Skloot's book about the cells taken from Henrietta Lacks' cervical cancer, without her permission, in 1951, reading it was a gift. It's beautifully written -- the language is clear and direct, interweaving the years it took the author to tease out the scientific, legal and economic facts along with the effect that the death of Henrietta Lacks had on her family.

It sheds light on the 'colored only' quality of medical care then, the medical advances possible because of the remarkable ability of her cells to divide continually, thus becoming immortal and invaluable to scientists experimenting in various fields, the bioethical questions about informed consent and compensation, and the history of her children, an extended family still unable to afford medical insurance. 

"There's no indication that Henrietta questioned [her doctor]; like most patients in the 1950's, she deferred to anything her doctors said. This was a time when "benevolent deception" was a common practice -- doctors often withheld even the most fundamental information from their patients, sometimes not giving them any diagnosis at all. They believed it was best not to confuse or upset patients with frightening terms they might not understand, like 'cancer.' Doctors knew best, and most patients didn't question that."


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