The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Themes and Colors
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon

Perhaps the most thorny and difficult issue within the narrative of Henrietta Lacks is the issue of progress vs. privacy. On one hand, Henrietta Lacks’ story is clearly one of an arrogant medical establishment taking advantage of a poor black woman. This is irrefutable. Yet at the same time, it is undeniable that Henrietta’s cells have created unparalleled progress within the field of cellular biology, leading to innovations that truly may not have happened had scientists not possessed the HeLa cell line. Although the medical establishment clearly took advantage of both Henrietta and her family, the world is undoubtedly better because the cell line exists.

This issue, author Rebecca Skloot explains, has huge implications for the modern world. She traces the timeline of when patients began to use their tissue samples for financial gain, and follows several lawsuits in which people claimed that money made off of pieces of their bodies belonged to them. Even now, she explains, a debate rages about discarded tissues that exist in huge quantities in hospitals around the country. Many scientists and researchers believe that these tissues can and should be used for any experimental purposes that researchers require. Other patients’ rights activists believe that any such use requires informed consent on the part of the patient.

The question gets only more complicated when you consider the complex problem of DNA sequencing. Such an act can tell you intimate details about a person or a family, such as what diseases they will be predisposed to in life. Since the HeLa line is essentially everywhere in modern medicine, it is all too easy for the Lacks family’s privacy to be violated over and over through their DNA. Yet to deny the growing field of DNA research the tools that it needs to continue progressing seems like a terrible course of action. In the end, Skloot doesn’t pose any easy answer to this issue, but mostly just reminds her readers of the validity of both sides of the argument.

Get the entire Henrietta Lacks LitChart as a printable PDF.
The immortal life of henrietta lacks.pdf.medium

Progress vs. Privacy Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Below you will find the important quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks related to the theme of Progress vs. Privacy.
Prologue Quotes

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Deborah (Dale) Lacks
Page Number: 8-9
Explanation and Analysis:

As she begins her story, the narrator--journalist Rebecca Skloot--reflects on its significance, and its personal effect on her. She emphasizes to her readers that this narrative is not simply about HeLa, the cells that revolutionized cellular biology, but about the human beings behind those cells.

Making clear that this will be a story of faith and family as well as science, Rebecca takes care to credit Henrietta's relatives--the very people who feel forgotten by history and by the medical establishment that profited off of her immortal cancer cells.

In so doing, Rebecca firmly states that her allegiance is to the descendants and their narrative, and that she means to harshly critique the medical establishment for the way it treated them. Although she by no means diminishes the scientific wonders achieved with Henrietta's cells, nor does she let doctors, researchers, and institutions off the hook for the bigoted and arrogant way that they treated both Henrietta and her relatives. 

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Chapter 6 Quotes

Everything always just about the cells and don’t even worry about her name and was HeLa even a person…You know what I really want? I want to know, what did my mother smell like? For all my life I just don’t know anything, not even little common little things, like what color did she like? Did she like to dance? Did she breastfeed me? Lord, I’d like to know that. But nobody ever say nothing.

Related Characters: Deborah (Dale) Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Page Number: 61-62
Explanation and Analysis:

Reflecting on her mother's legacy, Deborah expresses anger and confusion, still incredulous that people can benefit from her mother's cells without even knowing her name. She emphasizes that Henrietta was a person, and should be remembered for her human qualities rather than for her (unknowing) scientific contribution.

What also comes through in this passage is Deborah's continuing feelings of loss and grief, despite the many decades since Henrietta's death. She longs to know how her mother smelled, her favorite color, and if she liked to dance. In short, she still yearns for a childhood, and a mother, whom she never had.

Without ever saying it, Rebecca makes clear how damaging the continuing controversy around HeLa has been to Deborah. Having lost her mother many years ago, the wound is constantly reopened by insensitive researchers and journalists who think of Henrietta as a resource rather than a human, and who fail to understand Deborah's  longing for her mother. 

Chapter 12 Quotes

Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. “When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Mary Kubicek (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa, Henrietta’s Fingernails and Toenails
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

A research assistant at the time of Henrietta's death, Mary Kubicek recounts her patient's autopsy, recalling distinctly her shock and dismay at seeing Henrietta's "chipped bright red [nail]polish." It was only at this point, she recalls, that she realized how HeLa had come "from a live woman."

Mary's account shines a bright light on how easy it is for doctors and researchers to dehumanize their patients. Although Mary is a decent and moral person, she has only been working with Henrietta's cancer cells--which of course feel far removed from an actual person.

Henrietta's toenails, however, deliver a sharp rebuke to the young researcher. In that moment, she sees Henrietta not as a test subject, but as a human woman who--not too long ago--engaged in activities as relatable as painting her toenails.

The vast majority of researchers who work with HeLa, of course, have never had such an experience. To them, HeLa is merely a useful tool, rather than the final remnant of a now-dead woman. 

Chapter 15 Quotes

No one told Sonny, Deborah, or Joe what had happened to their mother, and they were afraid to ask…As far as the children knew, their mother was there one day, gone the next.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Sonny Lacks
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

As she will do throughout the narrative, Rebecca makes sure never to stray too far from the story of the Lacks family, and the effects that HeLa and its fame had on Henrietta's descendants. At this point, Henrietta's children know nothing at all about HeLa--in fact, they do not even know how or why their mother died.

Although keeping children in the dark was a common practice at the time, the sudden and mysterious loss of their mother proved hugely traumatic for all three of the Lacks children. To find out decades later that researchers and doctors had benefited (both intellectually, practically, and financially) from their mother's death would only add insult to injury. 

As the book continues, Rebecca always takes care to trace the different ways that Henrietta's children were affected by her death--from the stoic Sonny to the troubled Joe (later Zakariyya) to the bereft but ever-determined Deborah. At no point does she allow her readers to forget that her characters are real people who mourn their mother's death (no matter how much the rest of the world profited from it).

Chapter 17 Quotes

Every human being has an inalienable right to determine what shall be done with his own body. These patients then had a right to know…the contents of the syringe: and if this knowledge was to cause fear and anxiety or make them frightened, they had a right to be fearful and frightened and thus say NO to the experiment.

Related Characters: Louis Lefkowitz (speaker), Chester Southam
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Once again, Rebecca expands out, using the story of Rebecca Lacks as a lens through which to examine some of the most important and controversial issues in American medicine. In this case, the issue is informed consent. Rebecca describes the origins of the term, and the contentious disputes that led to its creation. 

In this case, Rebecca quotes Louis Lefkowitz, the Attorney General of New York State, and one of the first advocates for patients' rights. In this statement, Lefkowitz makes clear that every person has a right "to determine what shall be done with his own body," and to say no to any procedure that may be performed on them.

Intuitive as it may seem today, this level of consent was unheard of during the mid-twentieth century. Doctors believed that people did not know what was best for them and that as experts, they had the right to make decisions without consulting their own patients. This belief was definitely true in the case of Henrietta--both while treating her and when harvesting HeLa, her physicians never thought for a moment to explain to her what was going on, let alone obtain her consent. 

Chapter 21 Quotes

Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.

Related Characters: Lawrence Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (the author)
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

While being interviewed by Rebecca, Lawrence Lacks turns the tables, asking the reporter to tell him what Henrietta's cells "really did." While he knows that they were "important" in some way, he complains that "nobody tells us nothing." 

This short, plain passage vividly illustrates just how in-the-dark Henrietta's children were about her effects on the world. While they knew that HeLa was famous in some way, they had no real concept of what it had done, and of the huge benefits that their mother had provided for millions (if not billions) of people.

While the Lackses acutely feel that they have been cheated financially from profiting off of Henrietta's cells, this passage points to another loss: that this woman's own children do not understand how truly revolutionary HeLa was, and how many people Henrietta had helped. Instead of being proud of their mother, the Lackses are simply confused and indignant. Far from being their fault, this ignorance stems from the fact that no one had ever bothered to explain HeLa's--and Henrietta's--legacy to them. 

John Hopkin didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don’t know if they didn’t give us information because they was making money out of it or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Sonny Lacks (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca interviews Sonny, another one of the Lacks children. Here he expresses anger at what he views as Johns Hopkins' cover-up of HeLa, and their continued quest to keep the profits from the cell from the Lacks children.

Although Sonny's view is an overly simplified one, his indignation is absolutely justified. At the time of Rebecca's research, most of the Lackses still struggled to get by, often living from paycheck to paycheck. Most ironically of all, many members of the family had spotty insurance at best, meaning that they could not benefit from the very medical advances that originated from their mother's cells. 

At the same time, Sonny's anger also reflects a suspicion widespread in the African-American community towards the medical establishment. In many ways, Sonny does not trust doctors anymore than Henrietta did. He believes them to be deceitful, racist, and greedy--and although such a view is an exaggerated one, it is undoubtedly true that the medical establishment treated the Lacks family in an immensely unfair and prejudiced manner. 

You know what is a myth?...Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Bobbette Cooper (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca goes on to interview Bobbette, Lawrence's wife. Here Bobbette articulates another complaint within the Lacks family: that doctors didn't ask Henrietta for the cells, but rather stole them. To the Lackses, this makes the massive profits that the medical establishment has made off of HeLa even more illegitimate and unfair. 

In her anger, Bobbette also happens to be correct. Although it was customary at the time for doctors not to ask patients' consent before removing their tissue, such a practice would be unthinkable today. Further, physicians treated Henrietta with even less respect (and gave her less agency) because she was a black woman.

As a member of not one but two disenfranchised groups, Henrietta was particularly likely to be used and victimized by those in positions of authority. Although the doctors and researchers who discovered HeLa meant well and did not understand the harm in what they were doing, they nevertheless acted in immensely racist and sexist ways in their treatment of Henrietta, and their harvesting of HeLa. 

Chapter 30 Quotes

Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells—they get rich off our mother and we got nothing…All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far as I’m concerned.

Related Characters: Rebecca Skloot (the author) (speaker), Joe Lacks (Zakariyya) (speaker), Henrietta Lacks
Related Symbols: HeLa
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

Rebecca and Deborah go to visit Zakariyya, Henrietta's disturbed youngest son, still fuming decades later over his mother's death, and the medical establishment's profit off of her cells.

Zakariyya articulates an attitude of rage, suspicion, and jealousy. He believes that the world is ot to cheat him, and that the researchers and patients who benefited from Henrietta's tissue "didn't deserve her help."

Yet although Zakariyya might seem unreasonable and even unhinged, he in fact has every reason to be angry. Destitute and mentally ill, Zakariyya's never recovered from his mother's death, undergoing years of abuse and neglect as a result. Yet while he suffered from Henrietta's demise, doctors, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies thrived, using her cells to make both medical advances and profits. Given this disparity, it is easy to understand Zakariyya's rage, and his belief that the world has cheated him out of both money and a mother.