The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Problem of Medical Ethics

The end of the 20th century is the time of active development of the medical science. People have managed to clone the sheep and continue to work on possible means of treating cancer. However, the medical ethics can not develop as quickly as the science, and as the result it can not adapt to the progress.

One of such ethical problems is raised in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot, 2011). The issue whether it is normal from the moral and ethical sides to consider the patients to be mere objects of treatment and thus use them for the development of the medical science is raised in the current book. This essay aims at analyzing the ethical side of taking the cells for further research without the permission of the patient.

When the book was published, it was still not completely clear if the usage of the biological material was illegal in case the scientists did not have written permission from the patient. Such situation originates several other vague ethical questions. For instance, the legislators and the scientists disputed whether the biological material can be called someone’s property in case it was taken from the body. Once it was detached, neither the patient nor his/her relatives can forbid the scientists to use it in their experiments (Skloot, 2011, pp. 46-47).

However, the ethical problems are connected not only with the process of extraction of the biological material with or without the patient’s consent. The medical personnel who was working with the HeLa cells on the cancer problem made more cruel and ethically impoermissible experiments. One of such experiments was the investigation into the ways in which the organisms of people react to the injection of the HeLa cells (Skloot, 2011, p. 38). The cancer cells were injected to the patients who were already ill without their permission to learn whether one virus can defeat another or will the disease become stronger. Mostly all patients who participated involuntary in this experiment died, because their immune system was weak.

However, not only initially ill people were used by the doctors for the sake of medical progress. The healthy prisoners were also injected with the HeLa cells and in that time the doctor had the right not to explain what manipulations with the patient he/she is doing. The majority of the prisoners survived, but those, whose organism was weakened by some sort of disease died from cancer. Such experiments showed that those people who were already ill died quicker after the injection of HeLa cells, but those, who immune system was health and strong managed to defeat the virus (Skloot, 2011, p. 43). The actions of the doctors were completely unethical, because they made the experiments that endangers the life on those who do not understand what is happening with their health.

Further discussion of the experiments on living people without their permission shows the attitude to ethical problem that exists in the medical science. Certain people considered the injections to people who were already ill normal, because they were incurable and could at least help the progress with their lives. The others claimed that the criminals had a moral debt they had to pay to the community, and participation in the medical experiments was one of the ways to do it (Skloot, 2011, pp. 152-153).

All these ideas and events show that one of the major ethical ideas of the Western world is perverted. No one has the right to dispose the life and the health of another person without his/her consent. The case of Henrietta Lacks shows that it is crucial to remember that even though the medical progress is important, the value of human life is the priority.


Scloot, R. (2011). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway Books.

Ready to start?