The Unjust Exploitation of Henrietta Lacks: A Fight for Justice and Recognition

Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose cervical cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951, has finally reached a settlement with a biotech company for the unauthorized use of her cells. This landmark case sheds light on the mistreatment and exploitation of black individuals in the medical field, and brings attention to the systemic racism that still exists within the healthcare industry.

Henrietta Lacks was an ordinary woman from Baltimore, Maryland, who sought medical treatment for her symptoms of abdominal pain and abnormal bleeding in 1951. Little did she know that her doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital would take a sample of her tumor without her consent, using it for medical research without her knowledge. While most cells died in the lab, Henrietta’s cells continued to multiply and proved to be “immortal,” leading to significant advancements in medical science.

The cell line, known as “HeLa,” named after Henrietta Lacks’ first and last name, has since been used in research labs worldwide, contributing to breakthroughs in polio vaccine development, HIV studies, cancer research, and infertility treatments, as stated by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the very attributes that made her cells invaluable in scientific progress also highlight the ethical concerns and violations of Henrietta’s rights.

Henrietta Lacks passed away at the age of 31 due to cancer, unaware of the immortal legacy her cells would leave behind. It wasn’t until years later that her family discovered what had been done with her cells. Denied due compensation and recognition for her immense contributions, the Lacks family fought tirelessly to bring justice to Henrietta and raise awareness about the mistreatment suffered by black Americans within the medical field.

The recent settlement between Henrietta Lacks’ family and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc, a Massachusetts-based biotech company involved in the unauthorized use of her cells, marks a significant step towards acknowledging the injustice and exploitation that Henrietta faced. The details of the settlement have not been disclosed to the public, but both parties have expressed satisfaction with the agreement.

Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who represented the Lacks family in negotiations with Thermo Fisher, highlights the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks as a reflection of the broader struggles experienced by black people throughout history. The lawsuit that led to this settlement addresses the recurring theme of medical racism and the history of medical experimentation without informed consent in the United States.

Henrietta Lacks’ case has brought attention to the need for reforms in medical research ethics and has prompted discussions around the rights of patients and their tissue samples. The lawsuit argued that the statute of limitations had not expired due to the continuous replication and commercial use of the HeLa cells, leading to potential revenue generation for Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.

In 2021, the WHO commemorated Henrietta Lacks and her contributions to scientific advances. However, the Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also acknowledged the exploitation and misuse of women of color’s bodies in scientific research, highlighting the systemic issues that persist in the healthcare system.

Recognizing the immense impact of Henrietta Lacks’ contributions, Maryland’s delegation to the US Senate introduced a bill to posthumously award her the Congressional Gold Medal. This recognition is long overdue, as her cell line continues to save lives and shape modern medicine.

The case of Henrietta Lacks serves as a reminder of the need for ethical guidelines, informed consent, and fair compensation in medical research. It raises awareness about the historical mistreatment of marginalized communities and underscores the importance of equity and justice in healthcare. As we move forward, it is crucial to ensure that patients’ rights are protected, no matter their race or background, and that medical progress is built upon a foundation of respect and ethical practices.