Open Letter To Black America
The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks
For the first time in history, human cells are replicated, outside the body …
Henrietta Lacks' cells (i.e., "HeLa" cells) were essential in developing the polio vaccine
and were used in scientific landmarks such as cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. 1
[ George Otto ] "Gey [ pronounced Guy ] took any cells he could get his hands on — he called himself 'the world's most famous vulture, feeding on human specimens almost constantly.'" 2 — Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks (Monday, August 1st, 1920–Thursday, October 4th, 1951) was a poor Black American tobacco farmer and mother of five children, from southern Virginia who contracted cervical cancer at the age of thirty (30) and died from the same cancer at the age of thirty-one (31).3 In 1950 the great-granddaughter of slaves walked into the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland complaining of abnormal bleeding.4 Soon Henrietta Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer at Hopkins. While under anesthesia, Dr. Lawrence Wharton, Jr. (the "Hopkins Surgeon On Duty" that morning), without her knowing and entirely unrelated to her treatment, took a piece of her cancerous tumor and literally sent it down the hall to fellow scientists who (without success) were trying to grow human cells in culture.5 For years, scientist had been trying to keep human cells alive in the laboratory to no avail,6 but all of those years of utter futility were about to come to an end. The missing element and the most critical tool in testing was here at last. No one knows why, but Henrietta's cells would not die.7 In the Tissue Culture Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, laboratory scientist George Otto Gey (again pronounced Guy) cultured and created an immortal cell line for medical research.8 Today, this is very well known as the HeLa cell line. Henrietta's cells were essential in developing the Polio Vaccine and used without exception in far-reaching, ground breaking and cutting edge scientific landmark research such as Molecular Cloning (i.e., the replication of recombinant DNA molecules within host organisms), Genome Mapping (i.e., the creation of a genetic map assigning DNA fragments to chromosomes) and In Vitro Fertilization (i.e., IVF or the process by which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body in a laboratory).9 For the next sixty (60) years, HeLa cells were both inexhaustible and indispensable to advances in medical science.10
The Demand For HeLa Cells
"I've tried to imagine how she'd [ Henrietta Lacks ] feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine; the Polio vaccine, Chemotherapy, Cloning, Gene Mapping, In Vitro Fertilization."11 — Rebecca Skloot
The demand for the HeLa cells was unprecedented. Once Henrietta's cells were put into mass production, HeLa cells have been mailed to scientists around the world for "research into cancer, HIV-AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances and incalculable other scientific pursuits".12 Scientists have grown some twenty (20) tons13 of Henrietta's cells and there are virtually eleven thousand (11,000) patents involving HeLa cells.14 According to Sarah Zielinski HeLa of the Smithsonian.com, "HeLa cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold, which helped launch a multi-billion dollar industry."15 According to Jab Abumrad, host and creator of the award winning radio show Radiolab, "the cells from this one tumor [i.e., Henrietta Lacks' cancerous tumor] would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become a foundation of modern science leading to breakthroughs in Gene Mapping, Cloning and Fertility and helping to discover how viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things)."16 According to Michael A. Rogers, author, futurist and columnist for MSNBC.com, "the growth of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital helped answer the demands of the 10,000 who marched for a cure to Polio shortly before Lacks' death."17 According to award-winning writer, journalist and teacher Rebecca Skloot, author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", Henrietta's cells "were the first cells ever commercialized. HeLa cells are still the most widely used cells in the world. You cannot overestimate how important HeLa cells have been."18
Henrietta's Family Lacks
"Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn't donate nothing. They took them and didn't ask. What really would upset Henrietta is the fact that Dr. Gey [ George Otto Gey ] never told the family anything — we didn't know nothing about those cells and he didn't care. That just rubbed us the wrong way. I just kept asking everybody, 'Why didn't they say anything to the family?' They knew how to contact us! If Dr. Gey wasn't dead, I think I would have killed him myself."19 — Bobbette Lacks
"I almost feel raped, like the family feels raped … they did it, nobody told it."20 — Bobbette Lacks
David "Day" and Henrietta Lacks had five (5) children, Lawrence Lacks. Elsie Lacks, David "Sonny" Lacks, Jr., Deborah (Lacks) Pullum and Zakariyya Bari Abdul Rahman (born Joseph Lacks).21 Understanding that David and Henrietta's family lived in abject poverty most of their married lives.22 Understanding that Zakariyya, one of her sons, was homeless and living on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland.23 Understanding that Henrietta's middle child Sonny, was one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000.00) in debt after bypass surgery.24 Consider this: The family whose wife and mother's cells changed medical history forever, literally giving birth to a multi-billion dollar industry, cannot afford medical insurance. Okay, let's really get the picture. No medical coverage. No money. No help. No answers. No recognition and in Zakariyya's case, No place to stay. However and perhaps the most difficult cross to bear was the fact that their mother (until 2010), was buried in an unmarked grave.25 Although the family believes Henrietta was buried within a few feet of her mother's gravesite in "Lackstown" (a rural part of Clover in Halifax County, Virginia), her exact burial location is still not known. Perhaps, at this point, the Lacks family will never know.26
It's Not About Racism, Bioethics Or Money
"On Monday, February 5th, 1951, after Jones got Henrietta's biopsy report back from the lab, he called and told her it was malignant. Henrietta didn't tell anyone what [ Howard W. Jones, Jr., M.D. ] said, and no one asked. She simply went on with her day as if nothing had happened, which was just like her — no sense upsetting anyone over something she could deal with herself."27 — Rebecca Skloot
YES! The HeLa cells line proved to be the holy grail of mid-century biology, providing scientists "a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation" (Isaiah 28:16, KJV) for countless medical breakthroughs. YES! The Henrietta Lacks story raises very important issues surrounding science, bioethics, race relations, economic class, poverty and even personhood. YES! The Johns Hopkins Hospital claims they never sold HeLa cells, but clearly the same cannot be said for a multitudinous number of medical supply companies. YES! HeLa cells or products made from HeLa cells sold anywhere from $200 to $10,000 a vile 28 and YES! even today, HeLa cells are still the most widely used cells in the world. YES! The Henrietta Lacks story shines a bright light on the very dark truth that her family could not afford health care insurance to treat the diseases their mother's cells were used to cure. Moreover, let's be very clear. The Henrietta Lacks story IS NOT ABOUT human tissue culturing being bad. The truth is without HeLa cells life saving advances such as HIV|AIDS testing, basic drugs and all vaccines would not exist. The Henrietta Lacks story IS NOT ABOUT racism and|or racist White American scientists abusing a poor Black American woman. The truth is Johns Hopkins was born on a tobacco plantation in Anne Arundel County Maryland where his father later freed his slaves in 1807, nearly sixty (60) years before the Emancipation Proclamation ordered by Republican President Abraham Lincoln on Thursday, January 1st, 1863.29 The truth is Hopkins was an abolitionist, philanthropist and entrepreneur who made his enormous wealth as a banker and grocer selling his own brand of homemade whiskey.30 The truth is Johns Hopkins never married, never fathered children and just before his death, generously donated seven (7) million 1873 dollars ($7,000,000.00) to start a school of medicine to help those who could not pay for their medical care.31 The Henrietta Lacks story IS NOT ABOUT HeLa cells being immortal and scientists being good. The truth is that HeLa cells are not immortal,32 scientists are fallen and fragile human beings and sometimes even with the very best of intentions, things can and do go wrong. Be that as it may and notwithstanding any of the above, what the Henrietta Lacks story IS ABOUT inspires and impels. The Henrietta Lacks story IS ABOUT a beautiful Black American woman who loved her husband, served her family, met crippling cancer with calm and composure and conquered the cold, cruel and callous circumstances of her day with courage. In the end and in the light of my faith in Christ, the Henrietta Lacks story IS ABOUT the eternal efficacy of truth, in a sinful world. Because after all is said and done, the Henrietta Lacks story is a resurrected record, that once was lost, but now is found.
Open Letter To Black America
"We need to remember, that over sixty (60) years ago, a man that could today be called the father of modern day eugenics, proposed that population control clinics be concentrated in minority neighborhoods. And now today, the vast majority of Planned Parenthood clinics are located in our neighborhoods. Are we really so naive to believe that this is all a coincidence? We all know that drugs, alcohol and tobacco are devastating, especially in the Black community. We know that the BIG CORPORATIONS target us with the ads and marketing campaigns. And yet, we don't notice that PLANNED PARENTHOOD is doing the very same thing? We need to pay attention to the fact, that in the 1960s, when we as African-Americans began to demand our civil rights, for the first time in American history, there began a wide spread cry in our government for legalized abortion. Was that coincidence too? Or could it be, that when we said we would no longer sit on the back of the bus, a place was being reserved for us down at the abortion clinic?" 33 — Alveda King, Niece of Dr. Martin L. King, Jr.
Henrietta's Story Is Clear
So What's Wrong With Us Today?
What the Henrietta Lacks story makes so very, very clear is that in the 1950s Black Americans were being used without our knowledge to create life and make money for others. However, by 1966 Mississippi added an exception for rape using the American Law Institute (ALI) model penal code.34 By 1967 abortion on demand became legal in Mississippi, Colorado, North Carolina and California based on exception arguments (i.e., permanent mental or physical disability of either the child or mother, rape, incest and the life of the mother).35 By 1973, just six (6) years later, thirteen states had passed laws based on the American Law Institute abortion model and finally the United States Supreme Court (USSC) would declare abortion on demand during all nine (9) months of pregnancy to be a federally protected constitutional right of women.36 By 2008 sixty-seven (67) percent of Black American pregnancies would be unintended.37 By 2011 Planned Parenthood (the leading abortion on demand provider in the world today), would receive over half a billion dollars in government grants and reimbursements from tax-payers.38 By 2012 abortion on demand would take more Black American lives in four (4) days than the Ku Klux Klan could lynch in eighty-six (86) years.39 What's more today, Black American women who account for thirty (30) to thirty-five (35) percent of all abortions in the United States of America would suffer three times (3x) the risk of an early preterm birth (EPB) and four times (4x) the risk of an extreme preterm birth (XPB) as non-Black American women.40,41,42 YES! While Henrietta Lacks story makes it clear that in the 1950s Black Americans were being used to create life, sustain life, heal and advance life, Henrietta's story also makes it easy to see that Black Americans are being used with their knowledge today by BIG ABORTION (funded by BIG GOVERNMENT), to end our own lives and still make money for others. BLACK AMERICA, are we really so blind that we can't see the handwriting on the American Eugenics Society's 43 wall? Are we really so blind that we can't see today what our foreparents 44,45 could clearly see yesterday? I gotta ask, what's wrong with us?
Brothers, we need to talk.
01. Ron Claiborne and Sidney Wright IV, "How One Woman's Cells Changed Medicine" ABCNews (http://abcn.ws/cTnrbj).
02. Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", p.30. (http://bit.ly/11ypUIa).
03. Henrietta Lacks, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/Zv4WG).
04. Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", p.27. (http://bit.ly/18Iqs4J).
05. Ibid., p.33. (http://bit.ly/11yr06Q).
06. Jim Axelrod, "The Immortal Henrietta Lacks", CBSNews (http://cbsn.ws/11g8xgm).
07. Ron Claiborne, "Legacy of Life", YouTube: "Henrietta Lacks Family" ABCNews (http://bit.ly/17hIahm).
08. Lucey B.P., Nelson-Rees W.A. and Hutchins G.M., "Henrietta Lacks, HeLa Cells, And Cell Culture Contamination." PubMed.gov (http://1.usa.gov/13faflt).
09. Sarah Zielinski, "Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal' Cells", Smithsonian.com (http://bit.ly/by9bRs).
10. Ewen Callaway, "Most Popular Human Cell in Science Gets Sequenced", Center for Genetics and Society (http://bit.ly/11yu4j8).
11. Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", p.2. (http://bit.ly/13fdxVD).
12. Merdis Hayes and Matthew Mcwhorther, "Medical Apartheid: Bad Medicine", August 19th, 2010, OurWeekly.com (http://bit.ly/15w3wEw).
13. Henrietta Lacks, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/Zv4WG).
14. Liz Hunt, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: a bittersweet legacy", The Telegraph (http://bit.ly/aXP7hO).
15. Sarah Zielinski, "Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal' Cells", Smithsonian.com (http://bit.ly/by9bRs).
16. Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [Paperback]" Amazon.com (http://amzn.to/17Q3xaw).
17. Henrietta Lacks, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/IQKiyd).
18. Jim Axelrod, YouTube: "Henrietta Lacks Galerie Myrtis CBS Sunday Morning" (http://bit.ly/1aUriua).
19. Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", p.169. (http://bit.ly/18IwZwf).
20. Jim Axelrod, YouTube: "Henrietta Lacks Galerie Myrtis CBS Sunday Morning", (http://bit.ly/1aUriua).
21. Henrietta Lacks, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/Zv4WG).
22. Ibid., Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/18IxqXm).
23. Rebecca Skloot, "Skloot Chapter Summaries, Part III – Immortality", Class-y Writing (http://bit.ly/14asmtH).
24. Jim Axelrod, YouTube: "Henrietta Lacks Galerie Myrtis CBS Sunday Morning" (http://bit.ly/1aUriua).
25. Denise M. Watson, "After 60 Years Of Anonymity, Henrietta Lacks Has A Headstone", (http://bit.ly/bz6LVf).
26. Henrietta Lacks, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/14atU6X).
27. Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", p.31. (http://bit.ly/17hTvOo).
28. Jim Axelrod, YouTube: "Henrietta Lacks Galerie Myrtis CBS Sunday Morning" (http://bit.ly/1aUriua).
29. John Hopkins, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/bQCzV2).
32. Dianne N. Irving, Ph.D., "Re: Code name HeLa" Message to the Walter Hoye. September 17, 2012 1:18:12 P.M. (PDT), Quote: "First, when the term "immortal" is used, it is not meant literally. And over time the cells -- any cells -- in culture media change characteristics, even have genetic mutations and known to turn malignant if passed in culture too many times and for too long a time. So if you were to take the HeLa cells used today and compare them with the first few batches of HeLa cells -- or with those still part of Henrietta Lacks at the time -- there would be tremendous differences." Dr. Irving also writes for LifeIssues.net (http://bit.ly/tLE8zB).
33. Alveda King, "Alveda King (Maafa21)" (http://bit.ly/15uF1Xv).
34. National Right to Life Committee, "Abortion History Timeline" (http://bit.ly/18ICBGS).
37. Guttmacher Institute, "Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States" (http://bit.ly/99dVdw).
38. Caroline May, "$542.4 million in government grants and reimbursements from 2011 to 2012" (http://bit.ly/ZztFBH).
39. The Tuskegee Institute, "Lynchings: By State and Race, 1882-1968" (http://bit.ly/eJ5Zvd) and Lynching, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/LlRoA).
40. Guttmacher Institute, "Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States" (http://bit.ly/99dVdw).
41. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "2009 Abortion Surveillance" (http://1.usa.gov/T6gz7H). Please note that the CDC report is based on abortion data for 2000-2009 and excludes data from California, Delaware, Maryland, and New Hampshire.
42. Guttmacher Institute, Note: "17.7% of all abortions are performed in California, that's more than any other state in the United States of America" (http://bit.ly/11QeYuT).
43. American Eugenics Society, Wikipedia (http://bit.ly/hkJYVL).
44. SaySumthn's Blog, "R.I.P. Samuel Yette , Black Journalist Fired From Newsweek After Authoring A Book Exposing Eugenic Plans To Limit The Black Population" (http://bit.ly/eTCAvM).
45. Samuel F. Yette, "Obituary: Samuel F. Yette, Influential Newsman, First Black Washington Correspondent For Newsweek Magazine" (http://bit.ly/ZGEnrj).