Race and Class in Henrietta Lacks’ Life

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, written by science writer Rebecca Skloot, allows readers of the 21st century to explore themes of ethics, race, and poverty through the untold life story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. Before the prologue of her book, Skloot prepares readers for these themes. She states, The history of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cells raises important issues regarding science, ethics, race, and class (Skloot xiv). Readers are exposed to the unfair treatment of Henrietta Lacks and the lack of medical standards that were enforced during the 1950’s and later. Though the issues of paternalism, race, and class were all factors, that together, impacted the treatment of Henrietta Lacks and the medical revolution derived from her cells, it is apparent that race had the greatest influence.         Paternalism can most easily be seen throughout the first section of Skloot’s book, which focuses on the life of Henrietta Lacks.

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Here, Skloot gives a voice to Henrietta. During the time period when Henrietta was seeking medical care, doctors were very paternalistic. Doctors believed they were superior over patients and they always had the say in the treatment plan. Doctors didn’t work with their patients, they simply saw them as a case and treated them how they saw fit, without taking into account the best option for the patient. Not only was Henrietta seeking medical care in a time like this, she was also a colored woman seeking care. In the 1950’s colored people had a difficult time getting a high quality education, thus, doctors figured that trying to keep these patients in the loop about their course of medical care and diagnosis was useless. Henrietta’s treatment was never fully explained to her, nor was her consent ever required for treatments. This is proven through the fact that neither Henrietta nor her family knew that her cells were taken and being used for medical research.

As stated in the book, …no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor (33). The doctors never even told her that she was infertile, Henrietta asked her doctor when she’d be better so she could have another child. Until that moment, Henrietta didn’t know that the treatments had left her infertile (47). In saying so, Skloot reiterates the point that doctors kept medical information from their patients. Doctors were superior and they new best, Henrietta was just an uneducated black women, who had little rights and no say. Henrietta believed the doctors were doing their best to treat her; she had to go in for tests and checkups. One example of this was when Henrietta went into surgery and the doctors took two samples from her cervix. Little did she know the tests were for science and not for her.        

The issues of paternalism affected many patients alongside Henrietta Lack, so what made her case stand out? The answer lies in the issue of race and class, both contributing factors in the story of Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells. The fact that Henrietta was a black woman living in poverty made her a less important case. She was eventually seen as a mere test subject rather than as a real human being. This relates to the topics discussed through the focus on paternalism. Her color automatically made doctors see her as uneducated and of lesser value than white patients. No only did this racial stigma affect Henrietta, it also affected her family.         

In the book, Rebecca Skloot develops her theme of race by analyzing other ways in which people of color were treated during this time period. She shows this unethical treatment in the field of medicine by using examples such as the tuskegee experiments. Skloot states, …cells from a black woman were used to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campusand at the very same timethat state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies (97). The tuskegee experiment was set up to treat syphilis in black men. These black men told they could be treated for syphilis for free. They were sent letters telling them that they could go in to receive a free medical examination. In reality, the men were not being treated. These people were lied to and taken advantage of because of their race, the fact that they were seen as uneducated, and the hopes that they would take advantage of free medical care because they lived in poverty and couldn’t afford healthcare. They made the study sound appealing to so many black people living in poverty but they saw it as something they could do to receive free medical care and even food. It was said that these men gave consent to participate in the study, when in reality they were giving consent for something that was not clearly laid out. In other words, they weren’t giving consent for the experiments that were actually taking place. Just like so many black men that were taken advantage of during the many years of the tuskegee experiment, Henrietta and her family were in the same way. Following the theme of race, one of the most important, deep, and telling quotes in the book reads, It was a story of white selling black, of black cultures “contaminating” white ones with a single cell in an era when a person with “one drop” of black blood had only recently gained the legal right to marry a white person. It was also the story of cells from an uncredited black woman becoming one of the most important tools in medicine (197).

Here, Skloot sums up the issues she has discussed throughout her entire book. Paternalistic doctors and scientists and doctors taking advantage of blacks and their poverty. The irony in such unfair treatment towards a single black person in poverty that changed the face of medicine. These themes come together at the end of the book when the Lacks family finally begins to feel a sense of closure. Deborah and Zakariyya are taken into a lab at Johns Hopkins were they get to see Henrietta’s cells. For Deborah, she had tried so hard, for many years to understand what happened to her mother   and the medical advancements her cells rendered. Deborah did have access to the best education growing up so this was a very difficult task for her. Deborah thought of her mother as being the HeLa cells, he was alive because her cells were alive. Seeing them allowed her to realize that Henrietta wasn’t the cells, she was mom.

This bring the themes together because it finally showed that behind all the amazing story of HeLa cells and Helen Lane was the story of a person named Henrietta Lacks, her family, and how they were affected in so many ways by paternalism, race, and class. It also shows how much we have come as a society and how much the medical field has advanced. Though the issues of paternalism, race, and class were all factors, that together, impacted the treatment of Henrietta Lacks and the medical revolution derived from her cells, it is apparent that race had the greatest influence.

Through the analysis of the major themes of paternalism, race, and class in Rebeccas Skloot’s, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a pattern can be identified. First of all, each of the themes influence the discovery of HeLa cells and the medical revolution they brought with them. Secondly, it can be seen that race stands out amongst the themes as the root cause or greatest influence on what happened. The paternalistic ideals of the doctors that treated Henrietta Lacks were magnified in her case because of her race and the negative stereotypes associated with lower class/life in poverty was also magnified due because of her race. Overall, through paternalism, race, and class, were all contributors to the story, race was a root factor in each of them.

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Race and Class In Henrietta Lacks' Life. (2019, Dec 31). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from
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