In Review – To Be Immortal: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Who wants to live forever?

Throughout the centuries, the human race has hungered after immortality, all the while struggling to make sense of its various manifestations. Many thousands of years BC, Gilgamesh set out on an epic quest to learn the secret of immortality. Yet his searching was fruitless; he returned home with nothing more than the knowledge that the secret of life was reserved for the gods, while the physicality of the human race was destined to die.

Despite our technological advances, pillars of philosophy, and libraries full of the rational?and irrational?thinkers, we’ve never gotten much further than the ancient hero.

Most religious practices throughout history have encouraged spiritual immortality over physical, focusing on the soul, the inner self, and the afterlife. we’re encouraged by self-help gurus everywhere to view life as finite and to focus on our spiritual and moral legacy. Yet despite the sages? advice, It’s that physiological immortality?of our bodies, our physical reality?that has always been the most sought-after form.

It’s also been the most elusive. From the sorcerer’s stone to cryogenics to modern-day anti-aging surgeries and procedures, we have always pursued and created means to delay aging because we fear our end. And thus we continue to seek immortality.

But despite our human obsession with eternal youth, we very rarely take the myth, mystery, and aura out of the concept. Sometimes taking a look at the question of immortality in a less esoteric manner?through the lens of science, of culture, of law, and of ethics?can be at once shocking, mind-blowing, and healing.

This was brought home to me recently by a fascinating reading of the story of Henrietta Lacks: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot (Crown Publishers 2010).

Henrietta was an indigent black woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s. Before her death, her doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed some of her cancerous cells for research purposes. They didn’t obtain her permission first. In the lab, the cells multiplied rapidly even as Henrietta herself faded; they grew and divided, eventually creating the long line of so-called HeLa cells that researchers still use today. The result: amazing scientific advancements. Privacy invaded. Fortunes made. A mother lost, a family torn apart, children unable to afford health insurance. Millions of lives saved.

Sound complicated and confusing? It should. Because the way Skloot tells it, the story of Henrietta and her immortal legacy is more just the story of one woman. It’s her story, skilfully woven with the story of Skloot’s own pursuit of the truth, the reality of the family Henrietta left behind, the socio-economic prejudices and eugenic thought of the time, and the amazing history of modern cellular biology and genetics and medical healing. Yet the book’s not a mishmash of unrelated anecdotes. Everything moves together in harmony, giving the sense that Henrietta is the driving force behind all five stories. In a way, the book’s structure parallels the question of Henrietta’s own immortality.

Although It’s an illuminating work on a niche of science history and cultural ethics, it is by no means merely for scholars, scientists, or lawyers. Rather, It’s one that should be on the to-read list of every thinking adult in this modern age.

It comes down to the effect on the reader. When ethicists or attorneys lay out their interpretations of the morality of fuzzy ethical questions, there’s always an ?angle.? Reading multiple reasoned arguments is a good way for us rational beings to muddle out an issue. At the same time, though, It’s easy for us to gloss over the questions themselves in our haste to either agree with the written views or dismiss them wholesale.

Skloot doesn’t take sides. Intriguingly, nor does she merely lay out the case and ask us to draw our own conclusions. Rather, she tells the story in a manner that suggests serious questions about life, ethics, and morality, questions we can’t help raising on our own while turning the pages. I can’t count the number of times I put the book down to ponder an ethical question that popped up during my reading.

Because the questions come from within ourselves, we readers end up taking a certain ownership of them: we have that inner drive to keep exploring the ethical and moral situations, even if we can’t reach full conclusions. And, the book, more gripping than most fiction, lures us back for more.

In an extensive afterword, Skloot outlines some of the modern debate over medical and genetic ethics, but by then, our brains are already in high gear and ready to take it on.

Beyond a doubt, It’s uncomfortable to face deep thoughts about mortality, science, and ethics. Yet I think that in our deepest self, we do desire to know the secrets of living forever, and we’re intrigued by the clash of that innate human desire and our sense of morality and culture.

Which brings us back to the age-old question of immortality. Can immortality truly be measured in the physical world? At what point does life end? Is it the stopping of one organ?or the ending of a DNA line? When does it begin? Who defines life, and how to avoid eugenic practices?

What level of ownership rights to our tiniest components do we possess? Years down the line? What kind of control can or should we have over how our cells are used? How do we balance rights and scientific progress without severely hampering scientific discovery? For example, a decade ago, scientists researched the effects of avian flu using cells taken from a soldier who died during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. The cells were used for a purpose scientists of the early 1910s couldn’t even imagine. On the other hand, how do we encourage technological progress, particularly with the end result of aiding human health, without crossing that blurry line into ethical compromise and violation of the human person?

These are only a few of the big questions raised by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Both a light and a deep read, compassionate yet detached, eliciting laughs, tears, and a lot of head scratching, It’s a book that raises controversial debates both within and without. And That’s a good thing: because in our search for immortality, even a question is an answer.

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