Discrimination in Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks is a black woman who was born in the 1940s. Discrimination of all kinds was at its high point at this time. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a book explaining how her cells helped change and shape the medical field into what it is today. While doing this however there were many trials and tribulations included in this book that were caused mainly because of discrimination at that time. Discrimination was primarily a racial issue at that time, but that is not the only form. Things such as social status, poverty, and sex are others.

Henrietta Lacks had cervical cancer which is a very complex disease that needs to be treated constantly. This means that her hospital bills would have to be paid, which was not an easy task for a black family of six at the time. The Jim Crow laws were also in effect and if blacks would have turned up at whites-only hospitals, they would have gotten turned away. Even if it meant they would die in the parking lot (Skloot 15). Luckily she lived in Baltimore which was right down the road from John Hopkins hospital. John Hopkins was a hospital that was built to help support families who couldn’t pay medical bills.

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Blacks and poor whites were its primary customers at this time. This was something that was built to help fight discrimination. This hospital is still considered one of the best in the nation and is still going strong today. Gender was an issue back then also. Women were constantly criticized by men and treated very different from today. They were expected to do womanly acts such as cooking, cleaning, and staying home to take care of the kids. They also were prohibited from having certain jobs. Being black was worse than being a white woman however, so to be a black woman was to be at the bottom of the chain.

When Henrietta died her, family felt as if the doctors didn’t use their skills to the best of their abilities to save her. Since she was black her husband, David Lacks, thought that the doctors didn’t give her the attention she needed. Even though her doctor, George Gey, assured them that they had tried their best, the family still wasn’t convinced. It was hard to argue with the Lack’s train of thought back then about the situation. Blacks weren’t even allowed to wait in the same waiting room in the hospital. They even went as far as separating the blood and different samples taken from different races.

Even though it was one of the first integrated hospitals, John Hopkins has not always had a clean record. There were reports of scientists snatching up black people at night to take them back to the lab and run tests on them. Back in the early 1900s there were not many cures and treatments for certain diseases and illnesses. Many were not discovered yet. They needed to test certain drugs on people to see if the drug was successful, so they would prowl around at night and target blacks. They felt as if blacks were not as important as whites and that is the main reason why they chose them for test material.

In response to this act the black community around the area were taught not to roam around the neighborhood at night. Another horrendous example of blacks being tested on was the “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”. This experiment was conducted by the U. S. Department of health at the Tuskegee Institute. What they did was take hundreds of African American males and inject them with syphilis. They then stood by and watched them die a slow painful death just to study how the disease killed the body. They got the males to participate by mainly taking advantage of them.

The black men were poor and uneducated and were offered benefits such as free physicals, hot meals, and free rides into town. No one really knew about this act until the 1970s (Skloot 50). Henrietta’s cells were still being used many years after she died in 1951. A scientist by the name of Chester Southam was one of many scientists that used the cells, called HeLa, to try and discover cures for diseases (Skloot 129). One thing he did though was instruct other doctors to inject their patients with cancerous cells without telling them. He wanted to do research on the effects of disease .

One day when he told a couple Jewish doctors to do this, they immediately refused. They were reminded of the Nuremberg Trials. The Nuremberg Trials was when several Germany doctors were sentenced to death for conducting experiments on Jews without consent (Skloot 130). They chose Jews because they were considered to be an inferior race to them (such as blacks are considered to whites). They ended up taking the case to court because currently at that time, surprisingly, there wasn’t a rule that said you couldn’t do something to a patient without their consent in America (Skloot 132). It was just considered a code of ethic.

They ended up changing that rule making it clear that you couldn’t do anything to somebody without their consent. This was a big step for minorities because there were constant cases in which minorities were being taken advantage of back then. Acts such as the “Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”, and “The Nuremberg Trials” were put to a halt. By 1970 her cells had done more for science than any other than any other cells have. Even though her cells were famous worldwide, nobody knew where they had came from. There were always rumors about it being a black woman but no one was really for sure.

In the book you can clearly see that George Gey didn’t want Henrietta’s name to be known because of confidential records. The media however tried to push the issue that because she was black that they didn’t want her to be known. Eventually there was an article still leaked anyway so the public could know her name, although it was the incorrect one (Skloot 173). After all this commotion the family of Henrietta Lacks found out that there mother’s cells were still being used. The Lacks family was uneducated so when they heard that their mother was still alive, they believed that she, herself, was still living.

That just meant her cells were still alive. Either way they were furious and went down to John Hopkins demanding to get their mother. They also wanted reparations for all the doctors and scientists for making money off of their mother’s cells without their knowledge. When they were denied any insurance claims or any benefits, that jus fueled their hatred for white scientists even more. They claimed that discrimination from the doctors kept them from getting any benefits. They even felt as if the doctors wanted her to die just so they could use her cells.

Once you read the book thoroughly however you can see that the doctors didn’t really keep that information from them because they were black. George Gey just didn’t realize how important the cells would become when he first started. David Lacks had even signed a form giving John Hopkins permission to perform an autopsy on Henrietta after her death. In the end of it all I really didn’t think the doctors were trying to discriminate against the Lacks family. In my opinion I think that since the Lacks family was very poor financially, that they just tried to make easy money off of the situation.

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