Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins, Slaves at Georgetown, and Compensating Specific Historical Wrongs » VSB

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Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins, Slaves at Georgetown, and Compensating Specific Historical Wrongs

On Saturday, HBO aired its original movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, an adaptation of the book of the same name. Even if you’ve never read the book (as I haven’t, but am going to) you’ve more than likely heard somebody you know talking about this book, written by Rebecca Skloot, that talks about the woman whose cells, dubbed HeLa, would forever change the medical landscape. Her cells have helped in the fight to cure and treat everything from polio to in vitro fertilization. Henrietta Lacks’ cells are an industry unto themselves.

Johns Hopkins University, the famous research institution in Baltimore, MD, is where her cancerous cells were removed, studied, and discovered to have the reproductive properties necessary to do the type of research doctors had been attempting to achieve for some time. Obviously, I’m underselling the story, but luckily there’s a book and now a movie that speak to this point in more scientific and technical details. What is non-technical is that the cells were harvested and then used without her consent (apparently some of her cancerous cells were taken during the autopsy) and then used far and wide by companies that profited because of them. Johns Hopkins claims that it never profited from the use of her cells and that there were no regulations for consent then, though there are now, which sounds an awful lot like, we used to be racist but racism is gone now, we fixed it.

Along with the lack of consent though, there was A lot of money made because of her cells. In fact, the implication is made that the ONLY folks who haven’t profited off of the cells of Henrietta Lacks are her family. Even Rebecca Skloot managed to profit seeing as she wrote a book that remained on the best-selling list for six years. In the movie, the family is clearly wary of outsiders coming in trying to find information from them, especially when again, no money ever seems to be on the table though money is is being made everywhere.

Hopkins clearly made an ethical violation, regardless of whether the times dictated their practices or whether they never profited from the sale of HeLa cells.  They did provide the cells to other outlets which DID profit without the family’s consent or knowledge. A wrong was clearly done, no matter how you slice it. And in that wrong, a WHOLE lot of people got very, very rich doing so.

This begs the question: how exactly do you compensate for such a significant wrong that was done to a family, one in which money was being made hand over fist? And who cuts that check?

This reminds me of another recent case: Georgetown University. Georgetown profited from slavery, recently acknowledging the sale of 272 slaves to pay off debts and basically keep the doors open. Once you acknowledge something so heinous, you have to do something about it. Georgetown’s attempt to atone? Well, they have offered preferred admission to the descendants of the slaves that were sold, a group for which many people have been found, some even coming up for a ceremony here in DC. To me, Georgetown has fallen TREMENDOUSLY short in their attempt to atone.

Georgetown is roughly $70k a year to attend. Preferred admission is great; I’m sure the legacy students of alumni appreciate that too. But who cares if you get in if you can’t actually attend? Especially for financial reasons…reasons that Georgetown sold off those slaves they’re apologizing for now? It seems to me that in the case of Georgetown, there is a very simple solution: provide college free to any of those descendants who are able to apply and be accepted into Georgetown, whether it’s undergrad, graduate, post-bac, post-doc, whatever. Nobody who can trace themselves to that family should have to worry about being able to afford college again. They should only have to worry about being able to get in. That’s it.

Georgetown clearly knows this; WHY they’ve stopped short of doing this is in question. How is it that this school with an endowment of roughly $1.5 billion, can’t clear that financial burden? We all know they’ve had that talk, but apologizing without restitution is empty. Georgetown has fallen asleep at the wheel. While they’re asleep, at least they KNOW the obvious solution.

In the case of Henrietta Lacks and her family, should Hopkins be on the hook for a payout? Shoot, providing free health care for any member of that family forever should be on the table, AS should a free education for anybody in that family who is, again, able to gain admission, whether that be undergrad or grad school, law, medical, etc. Whatever. I realize these institutions struggle with their trustees and donors in terms of what they think is an appropriate reaction to these injustices – and let’s be real, whitefolks gon’ whitefolk, especially when it comes to past injustices towards Black people – but its hard to pretend like an injustice wasn’t done when the proof is in all of the pudding everywhere. And in the case of Henrietta Lacks and Georgetown, the specifics are very clear. If you can ACTUALLY reach out and touch those affected negatively, I believe there is a moral obligation to address those things.

I’m no lawyer and I don’t play one on television, so I’m sure the legal wrangling on these matters must be a headache and a half, but at least in these two cases, there’s a very clear way to do SOMETHING. And preferred admission is a cute start at Georgetown; a nice letter of admission is awesome on your way to MyNeighborhood University that can be afforded, I guess. I don’t know the proper way to compensate the family of Henrietta Lacks, especially if Hopkins claims of not profiting off the cells are true, but something was done wrong and that is indisputable.

They’ve got to do something. Riley Freeman famous told Santa that he was “going to pay what you owe!” These institutions owe somebody. The what is the question.

Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is pretty fly (and gorgeous) for a light guy. He used to ship his frito to Tito in the District, but shipping prices increased so he moved there to save money. He refuses to eat cocaine chicken. When he's not saving humanity with his words or making music with his mouth, you can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking her fine liquors. Most importantly, he believes the children are our future. You can hit him on his hitter at panamadjackson@gmail.com.

  • Zil Nabu

    I would assume that the restitution for the Lacks family could be settled through the courts. Have they brought suit?

    • MsCee

      They have and to my understanding, basically agreed to some rights on the say so of who gets access to the cells…but again, no actual money.

  • MsCee

    I’ve read up on this woman, her family, her cells and contribution to modern medical science. I was at that point, and still am unable to provide a worthwhile response to the whole situation.

  • This was a good d**n movie! Oprah, Reg E. Cathey, and Rose Byrne did their things respectively.* I’m just freaked that they don’t really need permission to Bogart your cells. Between being black and reading too many comics about Weapon X that just makes me weary of the science/medical industry.

    *Reg E. Cathey is alway going to be the guy from Square One TV in my head.

    • cyanic

      My spirit up voted you for the Square One reference.

      • And I still can’t carry the one for sh*t.

        • cyanic

          I stay rudimentary with math.

    • miss t-lee

      Shame ain’t it? Just steal your cells and get madd profits from them.

      Dayummmm. You took me back talking about Square One!!!

      • They don’t even need a gun or a mask because your a** is unconscious.

        As much as I watched Square One I still suck at math.

        • miss t-lee

          Math was never my friend either. I understand.

    • Cleojonz

      Right?!!! The consent regulations really mean nothing if they can still take your tissue so long as they redact your name.

    • BrothasKeeper


  • How much, who, and for how long are always the questions for all reparations.

    • Zil Nabu

      I would like to see tax abatement for Black Americans who can show they have at least 1/2 their ancestry from slaves and/or direct discrimination that caused financial loss from 1865 to the present, including redlining and denial of GI benefits.

      • Glo

        That’s a really good idea.

      • I’d prefer a focus on the latter than the former, due to the issues of deadhand control and the simplicity of determining benefits, but I’m cool with it.

  • Lynn

    While I haven’t read Skloot’s book (and probably won’t) I first read about what was done to Mrs. Lacks in Harriet Washington’s book Medical Apartheid when it first came out. It’s an outrage that the only compensation her family will get is “some” say as to which researchers will now get access to HeLa cells.

    • MsCee

      That was the same understanding I came to. I would like to think that my family would fight for more than that not only for me, but for them as well. I think I read somewhere that her remaining family members were mostly farmers and not highly educated themselves, which could have played a part in why they were convinced to settle for so little.

      • Lynn

        I believe that may indeed be a part of it. I read an interview with one of Mrs. Lacks sons and a grandson last week and neither of them are too impressed with Skloot and basically see her as no better than everyone who’s exploited their mother/grandmother for their own gain.

  • IDontKnowAnyMore

    A recent statement from the president of the university.

    Unfortunately, I do not have HBO, and do not want to sign up (I already did the free pass/trial), but I do hope to see this movie soon. Her story is one that many do not know about. Today, we owe many advancements in medicine to Mrs. Lacks and her family.

  • Alessandro De Medici
  • DCFem

    I like the solutions you’ve offered here. They’re much better than the crumbs offered by the respective institutions, and (because whitefolk are gonna whitefolk) they aren’t just cutting them a check which would send said whitefolk into apoplectic rage spirals. That wouldn’t bother me, but I know it would make life tremendously harder for the next group of black folks who find themselves in the same spot. And there will be a next time.

  • Cj

    As long as these company’s are profiting off the research from Mrs. Lacks cells, so should her family. I’d like to see the family get a continuous settlement based on the gross annual profits of everyone who benefited and a free college education as long as her lineage can be verified.

    • ScatteredPicturesoftheSmiles

      Seemingly there is some controversy in the family about the telling of the story.

    • Janelle Doe

      Good idea – like royalties (and they need a cut from the past profits also)

      • Cj

        With the back pay being up front and full acknowledgement of their wrong doing not this skirting around the actual problem b.s.

    • KNeale

      Yeah but isn’t Hopkins profiting off the research too. They may not be profiting off direct sales of HeLa but I’d be willing to bet they’ve received a large amount of endowments, donations etc. based off their reputations as a research facility. Research breakthroughs bring money and credibility (more money) to schools. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but to say you haven’t made a profit off of the cells sounds a little misleading.

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      • Cj

        You sho right. That’s why free education should be mandatory.

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      • HoneyRose

        And grants!!! If the researchers using her cells got grants – either from the NIH or another federal agency or from a private foundation – not only do those researchers get paid salary out of the grant, a school like Johns Hopkins takes 60% off the TOP. And you can bet your azz professors got grants for this research.

  • Cleojonz

    If you haven’t read the book please do so. Even with all the technical information that was in it, it was written in a way that made it easy to follow. I enjoyed the movie but it felt rushed to me, the story was so much more. Having said that, I am glad that Oprah saw fit to bring this story to the mainstream because not everybody trolls book discussion rooms in libraries like me lol.

    So I hopped over to the page for the foundation that Rebecca Skloot started. She funnels money from book sales into the fund as well as money from any speaking engagements. She takes no salary for her work with the foundation. There are two family members on the committee with Hopkins who gets to decide who uses cells through an application process so at least they have gained some control there. The fund also serves to make sure the family has medical care and education. So no one got a payday unfortunately there could definitely been more done there.

    • miss t-lee

      I didn’t see the movie, but I saw folks on twitter saying what you did, that it was rushed.
      Definitely not a story you can rush through.

      • Cleojonz

        Definitely not. I was looking at the time and knowing what was left in the story to tell thinking it must be episode one or something.

      • Mary Burrell

        Exactly, it left me wanting.

        • Nik White

          It was only an hour and a half long. They barely touched on the husband.

          • Mary Burrell

            I wanted to know about the husband as well.

    • I_AmU

      I’m addicted to libraries. Please support FREE public libraries. They’re under funded and the first to have their budget cut. It’s also sometimes the only place Resilients can access the internet.

    • Mary Burrell

      I read the real Deborah Lacks told Rebecca Skloot while they were doing research for the book she wanted Oprah to be the one to portray her. Oprah’s performance annoyed me. But it was Deborah Lacks request and Oprah’s money so that’s that. I enjoy Rose Byrne as an actress she was good as Rebecca Skloot.

      • Cleojonz

        She did tell her that, it was in the book. The night the movie aired Skloot tweeted a thank you to Oprah for making Dale’s dream come true of Oprah playing her in the movie.

        Everybody was raving about Oprah. I felt like she pretty much plays the same person every time she acts. She’s not terrible, she’s just not that versatile.

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