The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Themes and Key Issues

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What are The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ themes? What are the key issues or topics discussed throughout the book? How do the themes reflect on social issues?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ themes focus on racial issues and ethics in health care and research. The book is as much about Henrietta Lacks and her family as it is about society and biomedical research.

Read about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ themes.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Theme #1: Inequality in Health Care

Johns Hopkins had been founded as a charity hospital in 1889. By the 1950s, it was one of the most admired hospitals in the country. It was located in East Baltimore, and its public wards reflected its community: Most of the patients were poor African-Americans unable to pay for medical care. The hospital was also segregated, with black patients confined to colored wards.

(Shortform note: Skloot uses the terminology of the historical moments she’s describing. When her interview subjects use outdated terms like “colored,” she echoes their usage.)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Theme #2: Unethical Research

Determined to prove that carcinoma in situ could morph into invasive carcinoma, TeLinde embarked on an ambitious study around the time Henrietta first visited Hopkins: He and his team compiled and reviewed the medical records of every Hopkins patient in the past ten years that had been diagnosed with invasive carcinoma to see if noninvasive carcinomas had been present first. Many of the patients in the study were included without their consent: The logic was that patients being treated for free in the public wards—largely African-Americans—“paid” for their treatment by being available to researchers as subjects (again, without their knowledge).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Theme #3: Privacy in Research and Health Care

Hopkins’s release of Henrietta’s name and medical records, however, would be illegal now: HIPAA protects patients’ privacy. And the Common Rule features guidelines for naming and/or coding samples that renders them anonymous (i.e., samples are no longer named, like HeLa, using the subject’s real name).

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Theme #4: Consent

Contemporary bioethicists and scientists are divided on the issue of consent. Some believe patients should have complete knowledge of and control over how their tissues are used, whereas others argue the complexity of a robust consent regime would have significant negative consequences for the advance of science.

The Lacks family themselves had grown up in the shadow of Hopkins, hearing about “night doctors” who snatched African-Americans off the street for gruesome experiments. The cultivation of Henrietta’s cells without her or her family’s consent—and the economic difficulties of her kin—became a testament to the persistent power disparities between Blacks and Whites in the U.S.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Themes and Key Issues

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary :

  • How Henrietta's cells became used in thousands of labs worldwide
  • The complications of Henrietta's lack of consent
  • How the Lacks family is coping with the impact of Henrietta's legacy

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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