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Category Archives: Henrietta Lacks

I just read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot so it is fresh in my mind as I sit in my living room watching Law & Order.

The book chronicles the story of the late Henrietta Lacks – the unknowing donor of cervical cells that would go on to become the first human cells capable of remaining alive outside of the human body. The cells allowed scientists to study cancer and permitted doctors to save lives.

The cells were known worldwide as HeLa, although Henrietta Lacks – the woman they came from – remained anonymous for decades. Once doctors found out her identity her family was visited by a whirlwind of syringes and unexplained tests without informed consent. Her family was left without a wife/mother, without answers and without the peace and the justice they deserve. The ghosts of the Tuskeegee Syphilis Study nod knowingly.

The book takes readers on a journey through 50 years of family history, decades of scientific inquiry, years of diligent interviews and first hand accounts from the Lacks family themselves.

And tonight, Law and Order hard boiled that history into prime-time drama.
 
This episode, entitled "Immortal," is about a murder (aren’t they all??). Tonight the fictional murder victim was the descendant of a man who provided the first human cancer cells to survive outside of the body. Nathan Robinson replaced Henrietta Lacks. NaRo cells stood in for HeLa cells. Those cells also being responsible for curing cancer and saving lives. Hema Labs, the faux billion dollar biomedical company benefiting from those cells, stood in stark contract to the poor black descendants who can’t afford health insurance. Though the murder was fiction, they were on point regarding the story’s complexity and emotion wrapped up in historical injustice.

As much as I love Law & Order you just can’t do the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family justice in 42 minutes bookended by commercials for America’s Got Talent. Oprah has joined forces with HBO to produce a full length tv movie about the book. Perhaps Harpo Films will do it justice. I’d say that like most stories that hit the screen, your best bet is to flip straight to the source.

And now I leave you with a quote from the show.

"You violated my privacy so you could win your case, Mr. Cutter. You’re no better than Hema Labs."  - Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson), Law&Order Season 20, Episode 21 "Immortal"

Book cover photo from RebeccaSkloot.com