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Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Essay

Response to Prompt 1
In the novel Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta had cells removed from a tumor on her cervix without her knowledge or consent. Henrietta’s family also had no idea that the cells were being removed or the advances they would soon make in medical research. What the doctors and researchers did not realize is that in taking the cells from Henrietta, they were degrading the family and violating her dignity.

By definition, dignity is “nobility or elevation of character; worthiness”. (“Dignity”) When George Grey took the cells from Henrietta, he was not considering her dignity or her worthiness. He was considering the benefits for himself and for medical research.

At the end of chapter eight, we learn that Grey had never visited Henrietta while she was sick. Grey would receive the cells from an assistant and keep doing his research, almost as if the cells did not come from a living, breathing human being. “There is no record that George Grey ever visited Henrietta in the hospital, or said anything to her about her cells. And everyone I talked to who might know said that Grey and Henrietta never met. Everyone, that is, except Laure Aurelian, a microbiologist who was Grey’s colleague at Hopkins.” (page 66) By Grey never visiting Henrietta, he violated her dignity. As a patient, white or black, she deserved to meet the man that was taking her DNA and sending it to other laboratories for more research. Today, that would be illegal. But back in 1950, it was acceptable.

Additionally, the doctors and researchers at John Hopkins violated Henrietta’s dignity by keeping critical information from her and the family about her cancer and the removal of her cells. If Henrietta had been given the right to know her diagnosis and treatment options, she could have made a more informed decision, thereby maintaining her dignity. “There’s no indication that Henrietta questioned him; like most patients in the 1950s, she deferred to anything 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 a diagnosis at all.” (page 63)

Black people were given less opportunities to demand their dignity, and Henrietta was no exception. And when it came to white doctor’s treatment of black patients, the same rules applied. “This was 1951 in Baltimore, segregation was law, and it was understood that black people didn’t question white people’s professional judgement” (page 63)

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