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Henrietta Lacks’ Family Deserves Reparations For Her Life-Saving Cells

You may be alive thanks to Mrs. Lacks’ cells, but her family never received a dime for her involuntary contribution.
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You may be alive thanks to Henrietta Lacks’ cells, but her family never received a dime for her involuntary contribution.

If you’re not familiar with Lacks’ story, Amy Goodman summed it up nicely:

GOODMAN: Henrietta Lacks was a young Black mother in segregated Baltimore who suffered from metastatic cervical cancer. Doctors took tissue samples from her womb, unknowingly, that went on to become one of the most productive cell lines, leading to groundbreaking research that became a cornerstone of modern medicine, from cancer care and HIV/AIDS treatment to helping scientists produce remedies for several diseases, including the first polio vaccine and even COVID-19 vaccines. Her cells were just known as “HeLa” cells — H-E-L-A — the first two letters of Henrietta Lacks’s first and last name. But even her family had no clue about her legacy until more than 20 years after her death.

The Lacks family is now suing, via famed civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Thermo Fisher Scientific, for “using Lacks’s cells without approval from or payment to her family members — thus depriving them of billions of dollars and ‘the knowledge that a loved one’s body has been treated with respect,’” as The Washington Post reported.

On Saturday's The Cross Connection, Crump described the apparently unprecedented lawsuit as a matter of “genetic justice,” as well as social and “simple justice.” He said it is “based on a well-established legal principle, known as ‘unjust enrichment,’” meaning that a “wrongdoer can’t do the wrongful act and then continue to benefit at the peril of the victim.”

Grandson Ron Lacks was also on the show. He told viewers the suit is about much more than financial reparations. “Justice to me, my family getting the adequate medical care,” he said, though he never elaborated on that point.

“I want to restore my grandmother’s legacy,” Lacks continued. He said he has been fighting to “change the narrative of my family” “for years now" because he’s tired of seeing other people appropriating his grandmother’s story with what he described as falsehoods. He claimed author Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book falsely reported that Henrietta Lacks signed her name with an “X,” and wrongly portrayed his Aunt Delilah as crazy.

Crump pointed out that many corporations made a commitment to social justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Given that Henrietta Lacks has given so much to the world, isn’t it social justice to give back to her via her family?

Apparently, other pharmaceutical companies are at least negotiating with the Lacks family. “I know some pharmaceutical companies have tried to step up to do the right thing,” Crump said.

I’m not a lawyer so I can’t comment on the legalities of the Lacks’ case. But on a moral, ethical and humane level, it’s hard to see any justification to deny the Lacks family monetary compensation and what grandson Ron Lacks calls “ownership” of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy.

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