Sydney Isaacs, Class of '16
First Year Reading Experience Essay Winner
An Interview with Sydney Isaacs:
Life at Bucknell is pretty busy, but manageable. I am leaning toward Civil Engineering, specifically environmental, and I love ENG 100 with Prof. Orbison. Engineering has its own culture that I really like. I found a group of friends that are like an affinity house.
I agree that there is a social benefit to having taken her cells but it is ultimately an issue of individual rights. I can see both ways, but there is something weird about it. The science was a good part to read about, and the way that the Lacks family tried to accept the science in their life. Seeing somebody who has no idea learning about a whole new world was cool, but it was odd that the doctors seemed not to understand that the Lacks had no idea what was going on. They also seemed not to care what they knew. The racial plot was familiar (the white haves stealing from the black have-nots), but the other parts were different. I didn't think that the Lacks deserved money, but they deserve some kind of health care because it was her mother that contributed. But that becomes a political issue, not something doctors can fix. Also, the Lacks family didn't do anything themselves to earn any money, but with all the new privacy laws, Henrietta Lacks would have had to have been made aware of what they were doing with her cells, and how they were being used. This might have led to her being compensated, but with the possibility of profit in the air, people might not have told her anything, and it might have ended up the same way.
Science and ethics don't always come together because you want to improve society by using science, but a lot of times, you assume that what you have to do to get results is going to be worth it - the end justifies the means. But people overlook these things because they have one goal in mind. In this case, it was worth it because there was not much they could have done for her. They treated her, however much in a 1950's racially segregated way, but even though her family now is not well off, what they went through is not as important as the scientific advancement. It would be good if there was a way to set up a balance between the profits and their lack of health care.
winning essay by Sydney Isaacs
People cannot help but feel entitled to payment when they make a contribution to a money-making idea or discovery. The problem is that sometimes, those contributions are too small and easy to warrant a reward. Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks brings up the issue of sharing a profit, as many members of the Lacks family feel deserving of a share in the money made from research done on Henrietta's cancer cells. By writing about the Lacks family and their experience with the HeLa cells, Skloot's readers may agree that they deserve compensation. Yet, when the facts are taken into account, it makes sense that the Lacks' do not receive money for their mother's contribution to science. A donor is needed for scientists to make important discoveries through studying donated cells and tissues. However, the donor is not necessarily deserving of a share of any profit the scientist earns because the individual's role in the research is less significant than many believe and the actual rewards far exceed the worth of cash.
Any individual can donate cells, but only certain scientists have the necessary resources to use those cells to develop cures and new technologies. Throughout the book, the members of the Lacks family believe that Henrietta is a hero to all of mankind. In actuality, Henrietta's role in the medical advances of her era was extremely short. The head of tissue culture research, George Gey, instructed Henrietta's doctor, Wharton, to collect tissues for his research: "Gey and his wife, Margaret, had spent the last three decades working to grow malignant cells outside of the body, hoping to use them to find cancer's cause and cure" (Skloot 30). Thirty years of work is a significant sacrifice, and Gey and Margaret were sacrificing their time for the good of mankind. Throughout those thirty years, they had little success and much failure. Only with their perseverance and brainpower could the HeLa cells been of any use to the world. Additionally, after Gey graduated from medical school, "he and Margaret built their first lab in a janitor's quarters at Hopkins - they spent weeks wiring, painting, plumbing, building counters and cabinets, paying for much of it with their own money" and he also built much of the lab in which HeLa was grown (Skloot 38-39). Gey, fresh out of medical school, did not have much money to be spending, but he chose to invest it in a lab that would be dedicated to research and science for the benefit of others. To invest all of his time and money was not only a major sacrifice but also a risk. Gey is rare in that he never gave up on trying to advance medical technologies. An average person could not do what Gey and his fellow scientists have done. On the other hand, Henrietta did not make any significant sacrifice. Her doctor, Wharton, "shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta's cervix" (Skloot 33) and he required nothing else of her in regards to taking her cells. Henrietta's wellbeing was not put at stake in order for Wharton to take the tissues, nor did it come at any expense to her. As for the doctors, researchers, and scientists, their expense can be measured in large amounts of time, brainpower, and stress. What is more, if the cells had not been taken from Henrietta or if her cancer cells died instead of rapidly reproducing, someone else's cells would have brought the world to the same point eventually. As of 1999, "more than 307 million tissue samples from more than 178 million people were stored in the United States alone" (Skloot 315). With these large numbers of tissue donations, someone else's cells would have done the same job as Henrietta's cancer cells. Henrietta's cancer cells were rare, but not unique. Her role is diminished in comparison to that of the researchers who made discoveries using her cells, and therefore neither she nor her family qualifies to be compensated for her cell tissue. In fact, the discoveries the scientists made should be compensation enough.
Even if donors continue to feel worthy of a share in a scientist's profit, the reward they actually receive for donating far exceeds the worth of any amount of currency. Though it remains uncertain if Gey had ever met Henrietta, his colleague Laure Aurelian swears that Henrietta was told by Gey that they had taken her cells. She claims that Gey "told Henrietta her cells would help save the lives of countless people, and...she told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone" (Skloot 66). Whether this story is true or not is unimportant. Either way, it still brings about the same point. A value can never be placed on the life of a human. The lives Henrietta indirectly saved by having her cells taken far outweigh any reward her living family could receive in cash. Using her cells, "scientists helped prove the Salk vaccine effective" (Skloot 96). The polio vaccine is one of the most important medical successes for mankind. Salk generously sent the vaccine around the world for free, because he too understood that money cannot compete with the improvement of human health and technology. Henrietta's living family feels that they deserve to be millionaires from all of the money made from other important vaccines, cures, and technologies developed from testing on the HeLa cells. What they fail to realize, however, is that these medical advances are worth far more than any sum of money.
At first thought, sharing a profit with the donor of cells or tissues for the discovery made by a talented scientist seems fair. However, when the situation is looked at more closely, it becomes clear that the donors hardly require any money for donating. Donating cells is of no cost to the donor, and it is also extremely easy. The scientists have the difficult job of using their years of studying to apply their knowledge in an experiment for the betterment of the world. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks invokes a feeling of pity in the reader when it is revealed that the Lacks family has so many health problems that they cannot afford. When the reader looks at the situation objectively, though, it is more difficult to find a reason why they should be receiving payment for what Henrietta's cells contributed to science. The world got lucky with HeLa, but someone else's cells would have eventually produced similar results. More importantly, even with all of the cells in the world, nothing could be discovered without the incredible minds of scientists. While the donors and researchers both have necessary roles in tissue culture research, the roles are definitely not equal.