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Ethical Issues in Henrietta Lacks Case

EthicalIssues in Henrietta Lacks Case

EthicalIssues in Henrietta Lacks Case

HenriettaLacks was born in a family of impoverished tobacco growers in 1920 inthe state of Virginia. However, the effects of cervical cancerbrought to an end of her short life. She died at the age of 31 afterreceiving some treatment at the John’s Hopkins Hospital which islocated in Baltimore. While still in the facility, the doctorsremoved a small portion of her cancerous cell and forwarded it to thehead of research at the hospital without her knowledge. HenriettaLacks’ cell line which was sometimes referred to as HeLa, is thefirst immortal cell line ever developed in culture(Skloot, 2013).Even now, the cells are still alive and being used in variouslaboratories globally for the medical research purposes. The tissuesobtained from the cancer patient in 1951 have generated big profitsfor these drug companies but today, the surviving descendants ofHenrietta cannot afford even a health insurance. Thedoctors in Henrietta’s case erred ethically because they were notsupposed to publicize the patient’s information and remove thetissue from her body without authorization since it amounts toviolation of the right to privacy and consent.


Oneof the ethical issues that derived from Lack’s case is whetherpeople should have control of their body parts or tissues once theyare removed from them. That is, whether they should enjoy a portionof the profit generated from research done from these parts when theyare used for commercial purposes. Drug companies have generatedmillions of profits from the sale of the drugs manufactured from theresearch done on the tissue extracted from Lacks (Njoku,2013).The victim originated from a low-income family that survived bygrowing tobacco and her descendants too found difficulties inobtaining a health insurance to cater for their medical expenses.

Thereare millions of people whose samples are stored in the tissue banksand research laboratories around the globe, and most of them do noteven know about it. In America for instance, there are thousands ofpeople who have cells on file meant for research and still do notrealize itandthe financial benefits that potentially accompany them. According toNjoku (2013), some of them are generated from routine medicalprocedures, circumcisions, and fetal genetic-illnesses screenings.They are significant in scientific research work and the entire worldrely on them for vital medical advances. In the case of Henrietta,the scientists used her tissues to make milestones in medicine andthe neither the patient nor the family members were involved inmaking the decisions.

Anotherethical emanating from the case is the appropriateness to publishmedical information regarding a patient without permission from theperson or the family members. It is important to know that hospitalclients have certain rights when it comes to their medical records.Skloot(2013) states that itmay be stigmatizing when these records are revealed to everyone, forinstance through the internet. The approach can also lead todiscrimination at work, home and worse, from insurance providers. Itis a family information and should be confidential. Lacks’ familysuffered embarrassment and some members are even said to be living indiscomfort since the revelation of the health information of one oftheir family members and people associate them with the medicalcondition.

Anethical controversy also arises on the appositeness of removing anybody tissue without the consent of a patient or the family members.Though it is stated that there was no permission required for doctorsto remove a body part for scientific research by then, it was rightto respect the rights of the patient. Njoku(2013) adds that atpublic medical facilities it was a common practice and the rights ofmany patients were violated. However, Informed Consent was initiatedas a practice in 1971, nearly three decades after the death of the31-year-old.

Anotherethical issue raised in the case is whether race and financialbackground played a role in the decision to extract the tissuewithout prior authorization. Arguably, the doctors would have avoideddoing the same on an influential rich Native American. Skloot,(2013) states thatthere was much discrimination in the early days, and probably thedoctors did not fear to undertake such a move from an uninfluentialAfrican-American. They did so without consideration, and it is alsoevident that no legal action was taken against them at the time. Thepublic wards at the hospital were meant for the poor. Hence thedoctors did not feel any compunction in obtaining the cells for free.

Whatcould have been done differently?

Beforepublishing the medical records of the client, the hospital managementshould have first sought consent from the family members. Probably,they would have specified which information was ideal for revelationand which was not. Additionally, it was inappropriate to remove anybody part or tissue from a patient without prior agreement becauseindividuals have a right to all the body parts (Wolfet al., 2014). Therefore, the doctors should have requested the family membersbefore undertaking the operation.

Anotherthing that could have been done is to compensate these people or atleast cater for their medical needs. The relevant authorities shouldkeep in mind that one of their own has helped in the generation of alasting solution to a chronic medical condition that would help lotspeople globally over many generations. Lacks’ family members feelthat they have been robbed and that they are being denied theirrights.

Likewise,there should be equality in health care without considering the raceor the financial position of the patient (Wolfet al., 2014).African-Americans should have been treated the same way natives werebeing handled to ensure proper ethics in the society. Physiciansshould exercise their duties without any form of discrimination. Itwas not appropriate to toil with an African-American body partbecause it was cheap to obtain it and that no legal obligation wouldfollow.


Inconclusion, the physicians in Henrietta’s case blundered ethicallybecause they were not supposed to publish the patient’s data andextract tissues from her body without her approval since it infringesher right to privacy and consent. Arguably, no one wants the researchto cease but all people involved would like to know where and whentheir tissues are being used and if they are going to becommercialized so that they can benefit. The tale of the HenriettaLacks is rather unusual, in that her identity was attached to hercells. Though the doctors took such a move to help millions of peopleglobally through research for an existing medical condition, theywould have followed the correct procedure. They would have respectedthe rights of the patient and seek prior permission to remove thetissue. The doctors would also have not released the medicalsituation of the client to the public without first informing theclose relatives. There is always a right for privacy for everyonewhen attending a medical facility. The family members should havealso benefited financially from the profits generated by the drugcompanies as a result of the tissue removed from one of their own.


Njoku,D. B. (2013). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. Anesthesia&amp Analgesia,117(1),286.

Skloot,R. (2013). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, the Sequel. NewYork Times,23.

Wolf,L. E., Foley, D., Wheeler, C., Cavender, B., &amp Thoman, J. (2014).Ethical Issues in Nursing. TheArts in Medical Humanities,20(2),