Daily WTF: Banning The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The_Immortal_Life_of_Henrietta_LacksOne of the best, most interesting books I’ve ever read is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (2010). This book is about Henrietta Lacks, a woman who in 1951 was diagnosed with, treated for, and subsequently died of cervical cancer (or the treatment of it, rather). However, what was unique about her is that her cancer cells are essentially “immortal.” Unlike every other cell in existence, Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells did not die after a few hours. Rather, they continued multiplying and have continued to multiply to this day – approximately 65 years later. Her cells, the HeLa cells, have helped further science, allowing us to study and discover new diseases, cures, and vaccines. In fact, one could argue that her cells are the single greatest scientific discovery in the modern era.

Surprisingly, her family didn’t know about this for about two decades after her death and didn’t really understand the details until Rebecca Skloot started researching the story in the 1990s/early 2000s. It was Rebecca that met with Henrietta’s children and told them how important their mother’s cells were and what she had shared with the world, and it was Rebecca who finally published the full story in 2010 – including who Henrietta and her family are.

Now, five years later, one woman, Jackie Sims of Knox County, Tennessee, is trying to ban the book. A passage early in the book where Henrietta discovers the lump in her cervix had made her 15-year-old son, who was required to read the book for summer reading, uncomfortable. She read the passage and deemed it pornographic, first demanding that her son be allowed to read something else, and now trying to ban the book county-wide.

While I agree with a person’s right to choose what is appropriate for themselves, I don’t agree with Jackie Sims’ crusade to ban the book or her assertion that any part of it is pornographic. Pornography is a medium with unrealistic sexual expectations that, more often than not, takes advantage of its participants and dangerously skews society’s perceptions of sex, pleasure, intimacy, and bodies. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a nonfiction book that documents the discovery and use of the HeLa cells while focusing heavily on Henrietta and her family to show the dangers of unethical doctors, scientific illiteracy, and racism (Henrietta and her family are black.). It opens up a dialogue into the importance of gynecology and anatomical awareness and the need to get a patient’s consent before doing anything to them or with their tissues. It also contains one of the most interesting, suspenseful, and moving stories I’ve ever read.

I will admit that some parts of the book did make me uncomfortable. Henrietta’s discovery of her cancer while not graphic was intimate, and the description of her treatment highlighted how painful it must have been. However, just because I am uncomfortable with the human body and medical procedures does not mean those are pornographic, inappropriate for teenagers, or inappropriate in and of themselves. Because I am uncomfortable with those things, it is important that I be able to learn about them in a safe, informative, and non-intimidating environment – which The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provided. In fact, I strongly suspect that this book’s accessibility about such an informative but misunderstood topic is why Knox County School District chose it.

So, fine, Jackie Sims, pull the book from your son’s reading list. Tut about it to your friends. Complain about modern society’s moral depravity to your husband. But don’t take knowledge from other students and don’t make other parents’ decision for them. Everyone has a right to choose what they think is appropriate, not just you.


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