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One Book One College: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Discussion Questions

Teacher's Guides: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Discussion Questions

From the Bluford Library ( ):

1. How has medical science been advanced by the study of Henrietta Lacks' cells? Give examples.

2. What factors (race, class, gender, "the times") do you think were responsible for Henrietta's cells being taken from her without her permission? What factors do you think were responsible for her family being kept in the dark about the many ways in which the study of her cells were contributing to medical science?

3. In your opinion, was it "unethical" for researchers to take (and profit from) Henrietta’s cells without her permission? Why? Why not? (Define "ethical" and "unethical".) Should the Lacks family be given financial compensation in return for use of her cells? How would this financial compensation be determined? Who would pay?

4. What changes in research on human subjects resulted, directly and indirectly, from the Lacks case?

From the LitLovers website (

1. Start by unraveling the complicated history of Henrietta Lacks's tissue cells. Who did what with the cells, when, where and for what purpose? Who benefited, scientifically, medically, and monetarily?

2. What are the specific issues raised in the book—legally and ethically? Talk about the 1980s John Moore case: the appeal court decision and its reversal by the California Supreme Court.

3. Follow-up to Question #2: Should patient consent be required to store and distribute their tissue for research? Should doctors disclose their financial interests? Would this make any difference in achieving fairness? Or is this not a matter of fairness or an ethical issue to begin with?

4. What are the legal ramifications regarding payment for tissue samples? Consider the the RAND corporation estimation that 304 million tissue samples, from 178 million are people, are held by labs.

5. What are the spiritual and religious issues surrounding the living tissue of people who have died? How do Henrietta's descendants deal with her continued "presence" in the world...and even the cosmos (in space)?

6. Were you bothered when researcher Robert Stevenson tells author Skloot that "scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being little bits of Henrietta because it’s much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they come from"? Is that an ugly outfall of scientific resarch...or is it normal, perhaps necessary, for a scientist to distance him/herself? If "yes" to the last part of that question, what about research on animals...especially for research on cosmetics?

7. What do you think of the incident in which Henrietta's children "see" their mother in the Johns Hopkins lab? How would you have felt? Would you have sensed a spiritual connection to the life that once created those cells...or is the idea of cells simply too remote to relate to?

8. Is race an issue in this story? Would things have been different had Henrietta been a middle class white woman rather than a poor African American woman? Consider both the taking of the cell sample without her knowledge, let alone consent... and the questions it is raising 60 years later when society is more open about racial injustice?

9. Author Rebecca Skloot is a veteran science writer. Did you find it enjoyable to follow her through the ins-and-outs of the laboratory and scientific research? Or was this a little too "petri-dishish" for you?

10. What did you learn from reading The Immortal Life? What surprised you the most? What disturbed you the most?

5. What impact did the unfolding of the story of Henrietta's "immortal cells" have on her husband and children, particularly her daughter, Deborah?

6. How does the author herself become part of the story of Henrietta Lacks?