7 Feb, 12 | by Iain Brassington
Note: There’s a couple of errors of interpretation in this post. I’m not going to re-write it, because I wrote what I wrote, and it’s in the public domain, and I don’t think it’s all that dignified to pretend that one never makes blunders; it’s better to acknowledge them, take the hit, and move on. But please do have a look at Rebecca Skloot’s response in the comments, and at my answer to her. – IB, 8.ii.12
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Since I read it in the autumn, there’s been a few things nagging at the back of my mind about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A few things that don’t seem quite right somehow; and prompted by Pär Segerdahl’s post on The Ethics Blog, I’m tempted to see if I can put them into words.
For those who haven’t read the book, it deals with the story of how it was that an apparently immortal cell culture line, HeLa, was obtained. The cells were taken from a cervical tumour that went on to kill one Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who lived near Baltimore. During the course of her treatment, a sample of cancerous cells was taken for testing, as was a sample of healthy cells. (“HeLa” gets its name from the convention of naming culture lines by contracting the name of the person from whom they’re derived.) These biopsies were apparently unconsented. But what’s important about them is that, whereas most cell lines at the time died fairly quickly, the cancer sample kept on dividing and dividing. The HeLa strain proved to be important in all kinds of areas of research. Doubtless, some of this research has made some people very wealthy. Yet Henrietta’s descendents have seen none of this profit. Indeed, many of them are not much more enfranchised today than a black woman would have been 60 years ago; they weren’t even aware that there was such a thing as HeLa.
So what’s the problem?
One of them is definitely stylistic. I have problems with something that Skloot thinks is a virtue, which is that “dialogue appears in native dialects” (xi). I don’t share the notion that it’s in any way dishonest to polish out people’s linguistic infelicities, just as one would polish out all the ums and ahs and placeholders in everyday speech. And I can’t shake the feeling that the professionals who get speaking parts in the book have had their speech tidied; though it’s probably true that the higher your social status, the less susceptible you are to malapropisms, I don’t believe that the educated people directly quoted in the book were always grammatically perfect and never used colloquialisms. But this is a minor quibble.
What’s more nagging – and potentially more interesting from an ethicist’s point of view – is a question about why any of this is particularly important. more…