Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Who is entitled to our genetic material? If my cells enable a drug company to create a profit generating drug should I get some of the proceeds? As the laws are today, I couldn’t. Sharing the profits with me would cause drug companies to stop making drugs, or so they say. That last sentence is so absurd I laughed a little while typing it.
Henrietta Lacks signed off on giving her cancerous cervical cells to research. Years later her cells have been reproduced enough to encircle the world. They were used in developing several cancer treatments. In essence these cells were the precursor to billions of dollars of medical services and treatments. Meanwhile Henrietta’s children and grandchildren cannot afford healthcare.
Something is deeply wrong with this. Although I am not of the opinion that The Lacks family should be millionaires off their mom’s genetic material, it does feel unjust that her children cannot afford the treatments that their mother enabled. At the core of this book is the conflict inherent in capitalism as our caretaker.
We are engaging with a set of economic causes and effects, all the while pretending there is some morality to it. There’s nothing moral in supply and demand, it is better a display of amoral power. Those that have can extort those that do not to greatest degree possible. And when they do so we consider that “good” business.
If we question the outcomes of this blind system, we are always scolded with the dramic choice between no healthcare and a more equitable system or healthcare for the wealthy. This either/or proposition has been demonstrated as false by Britain’s NHS and Canada’s healthcare. But we still believe that to control morally bankrupt capitalist forces in our healthcare is to handover our decisions to a soulless government minion. But a profit-seeking insurance agent is just peachy.
Lifting this rock a bit more reveals our unspoken, toxic adoration of wealth as being synonymous with right and good, and poverty being only a moral failing rather than a systemic feature of capitalism. Most of the rich people I know have overcome less barriers than the poor people I know. If what we really value is hard work, my time waiting tables should have been better than my time spent in my cushioned office chair directing project meetings. But that isn’t what my pay says.
Meanwhile I will enjoy my yearly checkup in a few weeks. I will get my teeth cleaned with no out of pocket expenses. And I will think about a those years waiting tables with no healthcare. And I will consider that I must have become more morally good since then.