About the Book
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks “tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.” -Rebecca Skloot
Reflection Questions to Consider
Henrietta signed a consent form that said, “I hereby give consent to the staff of The Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform any operative procedures and under any anesthetic either local or general that they may deem necessary in the proper surgical care and treatment of: ________” (page 31). Based on this statement, do you believe TeLinde and Gey had the right to obtain a sample from her cervix to use in their research? What pieces of information constitute informed consent between Henrietta and her doctors? Do you think Henrietta would have given explicit consent to have a tissue sample used in medical research if she had been given all the information? How does one provide explicit consent? Do you always thoroughly read consent forms before signing them? Why is informed consent important throughout our community?
In 1976, when Mike Rogers’s Rolling Stone article was printed, many viewed it as a story about race (see page 197 for reference). How do you think public interpretation might have been different if the piece had been published at the time of Henrietta’s death in 1951? How is this different from the way her story is being interpreted today? How do you think Henrietta’s experiences with the medical system would have been different had she been a white woman? What about Elsie’s fate? How does our understanding of race shape our perceptions and interaction with various entities and individuals?
Religious faith and scientific understanding, while often at odds with each other, play important roles in the lives of the Lacks family. How does religious faith help frame the Lackses’ response to and interpretation of the scientific information they receive about HeLa? How does Skloot’s attitude toward religious faith and science evolve as a result of her relationship with the Lackses? How do you frame religious faith and scientific understanding when you approach thoughts and opinions different from your own?
Questions were adapted from reading guides and reflection questions available at Rebecca Skloot’s website. Please use the Additional Resources section below for more questions to enhance your reading experience.
- Rebecca Skloot: The official website for the author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
- Henrietta Lacks Foundation: a Section 501c3 non-profit organization founded by author Rebecca Skloot to aid and retribute the family and descendants of Henrietta Lacks. The organization also aims to assist other families of individuals “who have unwillingly or unknowingly been used in research or contributed biological materials for research.”
- “The Immortal Henrietta Lacks”: (CBS News, 2010) “The gift of life is surely the greatest gift of all. So how could the story of a remarkable woman who gave that gift over and over again have been overlooked for so long?”