Monday, April 16, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

If you know me even a little bit, you know I HATE the S word.  I really, really hate those things, those cold, creepy, slithery, scaly, evil-embodying stuff of nightmares.  Hate them with a passion that may unfairly get taken out on a sinister looking stick or lone shoelace left behind on the garage floor, just on the presumption that it MAY have slightly resembled an S.  And by “taken out on”, I mean shrieked at and bolted from.  So when Andrea told me I better not ever pick another medical book or she would then choose a field guide to S as her pick, I started to get the feeling that my April pick, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, wasn’t her new best friend. 

Even with that initial response, this book turned out to be book club gold.  There was just so much to talk about.  It’s one of those books that raise questions you have never thought about before…who should be able to make money off human tissue and/or cells?  Does a person have the right to determine what happens to parts and pieces of their body once removed?  If a person essentially throws some part of themself away, are the monetary benefits that could be made off it up for grabs?  Is there an ethical obligation that if a person’s cells turn a profit, the original user of those cells should be compensated?  And if so, how much?  And more creepily, could my cells be out there somewhere being experimented on, researched on, cloned or used in any way without my knowledge?  (Now I’m picturing any army of micro-Crystals in a lab somewhere, some true clones, some half human half dog hybrids, maybe something that would be on the Island of Dr. Moreau...  I like it!)
Rebecca Skloot did a fantastic job of weaving the story of Henrietta and her family into the bigger picture of scientific advancement, the history of medical research, American race relations and health care capitalism.  She wrote the heavy, meaty sections in ways that the average person could understand and then put a face on it, albeit sometimes it was a face I didn’t much like.  She tried to stay as impartial as possible, not sainting or demonizing either side, but rather laying everything out and letting the reader decide where they stood.  Even after reading, pondering and discussing this book, I still don’t have the answers.  Maybe the awareness Ms. Skloot raised and the fact that the questions are being debated is enough. 

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