In Hannah Lendecker’s essay about the HeLa cell line, she traces it back to its origin as a piece of a human being and discusses the way that modern science has treated and mistreats Henrietta Lacks, the woman who died from the cancer which gave birth to the cell line. In “Immortality in Vitro”, Lendecker, who is an anthropologist by training, tries to evaluate the difference between the cell line and its original, a human woman.
The cell line has developed its own genetic composition, no long just a human cell, but something more and less, yet when researchers talk about the HeLa cell line, the talk about it as though it were an entity itself instead of something derived from a human. (Lendecker 2000)That development has Lendecker and other social scientists concerned about the changing definition of humanity and the impact that might play in the debate about cloning and other forms of biological research.
Most interesting from Lendecker’s standpoint is not the cell in developed a “life” of its own, but that the way that the cells were described changed with the identification of their donor. Where before Mrs. Lacks was identified the cells were considered rapidly-developing, they suddenly became “aggressive”. Other sort of description neutral or even mildly positive descriptors became negative (Lendecker 2000). She is also troubled by the fact that the scientists know now the Mrs.
Lacks was misdiagnosed when the cells were harvested and ultimately given incorrect treatment for illness, but that no one has expressed a greater concern over the misdiagnosis. Instead, they argue that a correct diagnosis would have just left the doctors with the conclusion that the cancer was going to rapidly kill Mrs. Lacks, which it did anyway. She is troubled most by the removal of the human element in the development of the cells and the fact that they have taken on an identity of their own.
That they are not even considering Mrs. Lacks’ role in the development of the cells may then contribute to a change in the way we view humanity and the role of the human. Journalist David M. Bresnahan explained the issue in terms of cloning in his July, 2002, piece for the NewswithViews website. The issue is that by making the HeLa Cell Line an entity in its own right and stripping away its ties to the Mrs. Lacks, we are enabling science to make a collection of cells into a being, literally playing God.
It is just a hair’s breadth away then from arguing that if the cell line can sustain life without the benefit of a human host that conglomerations of cells manufactured in a Petri dish can also be considered to be living, human entities (Bresnahan 2002). The issue then becomes how we define the word human and if we suddenly move away from the concept of a human as being the offspring of other humans created through the union of sperm and ova.
Bresnahan’s concern is that man will offend God, attempting to (and succeeding in) patenting DNA sequences which scientist may have mapped, but in no way created, or as in the case of the HeLa cell line, kept the economic rights to something which they harvested, not created. The concept that the HeLa line could be considered an entity with its own rights to live and prosper is very frightening. Since when is it appropriate to give a collection of abnormal cells rights?
And, why are the traits being ascribed to the HeLa Cell Line almost used as personality descriptors? The most frightening aspect of this trend is the differentiation between the cells and the person that created them. Henrietta Lacks marched in favor of efforts to find a cure for polio and her cells helped Jonas Salk to develop the vaccine that would later make the disease virtually non-existent, but to give the credit to her cells rather than the woman is to demean the value of human life.
All the experiences and life issues that were Henrietta Lacks assisted in the creation of this human byproduct, but scientists and others interested in the scientific value of the cell line have tried to eliminate the discussion of where it came from in the first place. It is possible that this action as at first motivated by greed. The hospital has made millions selling this cell strain for research and in the patents that have been developed within Johns Hopkins through the use of the cell, but the Lacks were not given anything, not even a fundamental right to have some say over the disposal of what had once been a part of Mrs.
Lacks. In fact, a federal court in California has upheld, in an unrelated case that patients lose control of tissue and other by products of medical treatment and have no say in their use or disposal. The cell line was initially given the name HeLa from the first two letters of her first and last name, but otherwise, the hospital argued, the cells had nothing to do with Henrietta Lacks. From an ethical and humanitarian viewpoint, this is particularly troubling, especially when taken with recent advancements in medicine. It this type of ruling is allowed to stand, the implications are both silly and frightening.
On a purely theoretical level, it would mean that a person who has any type of surgery performed at the hospital could be the victim of cloning. Once the technology is available, a simple birth or any other surgical procedure and indeed many non-surgical ones could give a hospital enough genetic material to create a clone. The implication of the law as interpreted with regard to HeLa is that the clone, though sharing the exact genetic makeup of another person, would be the property of the hospital or whomever the hospital sold the surgical byproducts to.
Imagine the ramifications if every person who had even a minor hospital procedure knew that they could be looking at the development of a clone because of it. While it is the stuff that horror movies are made of, the question rages about the implications of having a clone. Since we have not yet been able to determine how exactly memories are held in the body, the immediate question becomes would a clone hold the memories of the original? We know that a divided tape worm that has been conditioned to run mazes will still be able to run those mazes after splitting. What about a human?
If a 40-year-old man has his gallbladder removed, what is the potential that he could be cloned and that the clone would hold the same memories and same wants, needs and desires. Since we have not yet begun to determine these issues, the concept that a clone could possibly retain those memories and therefore be in immediate conflict with the original is becoming a question for science fact rather than science fiction. The possibility that a court system which cannot even determine when life begins might have to at some point decide the very definition of human existence is at once wondrous and frightening.
“”It is this potential for genocide based on genetic differences, which I have termed ‘genetic genocide,’ that makes species-altering genetic engineering a potential weapon of mass destruction, and makes the unaccountable genetic engineer a potential bioterrorist,” writes George J. Annas, chairman of the Department of Health, Law, Bioethics and Human Rights at Boston University School of Public Health (2002). The issue becomes so ultimately complicated but it hinges on the right of an organism based on human tissue to be considered human, again the stuff of science fiction.
Movies have long debated what becomes of the clones, from those that theorize that the clone is a semi-robotic copy of the first with all the same genetic predispositions to those that theorize that upbringing may play a role as much as genetics and show clones raised in a society unto themselves. Regardless, Bresnahan argues that the problem is that these are decisions that the human mind is incapable of making and issues that it should not be delving in (2002).
Whether one accepts his argument that humans should not be interfering in the affairs of a creator being is irrelevant to the main issue. Ultimately, man in his infinite wisdom must be able to differentiate between rational beings and a collection of cells which grew out of a rational being. And, we must determine before it becomes an issue, not afterward, what happens if the collection of cells can achieve rational thought on its own.
Annas, George J. “the Risk of the Rush to human Genetic Engineering and the Larger Agenda of the Human Biotech Industry” World Watch, July, 2002. Bresnahan, David M. “Playing God: Changing the Definition of ‘Human Beings’”. July 5, 2002. NewsWithViews. com, (Accessed December 14, 2007). Lendecker, Hannah. “Immortality, In Vitro: A History of the HeLa Cell Line,” 53-72 in Biotechnology and Culture: Bodies, Anxieties, Ethics, edited by Paul Brodwin, Theories of Contemporary Culture series, Indiana University Press, 2000.