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Thirteen Ways of Looking at Henrietta Lacks

Wallace Stevens wrote “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” to suggest that what we see is never simply what is there. Seeing always requires imagination. I’ve tried to imagine thirteen ways of looking at Henrietta Lacks.

Rebecca Skloot imagines the life of Henrietta Lacks. Her project is both enlightening and troubling. We learn of the ways that academic medical centers can exploit patients. We learn of the inexcusable injustices of America’s profit-driven health care enterprise. But we learn more.

Skloot delves into details of Ms. Lacks that don’t seem essential to the story about biomedical research and exploitation. Instead, they seem to be a different sort of exploitation. Do we need to know the details of Ms Lacks’ daughter’s abusive marriage and divorce. Does her son’s imprisonment bear on the biomedical story? Do we really need to know of Henrietta’s sexually transmitted diseases?

Skloot turns Henrietta’s life into what Karla Holloway calls “an open narrative for public consumption.”

Was Ms. Lacks exploited? Maybe. But ultimately, Skloot tells a tale that is both light and dark, both ennobling and disturbing. Nobody in the tale is simply good or simply evil. There are no heroes or villains. Such a tale ought to make us more compassionate and increase our yearning for a more just world. But it does not make the case that we need to change the way biomedical research is regulated.

No one should be exploited for the benefit of others. It is a travesty that the Lacks family doesn’t have health insurance. But if researchers had never taken Henrietta’s cells, her children would still lack health insurance. If her cells had not led to valuable scientific discoveries, the children would be no better off. They would have neither health insurance nor the polio vaccine.

Henrietta Lacks’ cells are immortal. Discoveries made from those cells have benefited millions of people. Her contribution to the relief of human suffering deserves honor. It would be nice to think that, if she had been asked, she would have chosen to donate her cells to science. She ought to have. Let’s celebrate her for that presumed act of generosity and altruism, and be inspired to act in similar ways.

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