Cells, Race and Stories: A Discussion with Priscilla Wald about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell Line

Priscilla Wald (Duke, English and the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Engineering 2, 599

4:00-6:00 PM

This event is co-sponsored with Cultural Studies, Center for Biomolecular Sciences and Engineering—Research Mentoring Institute, and the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department.

Priscilla Wald, "Cells, Race and Stories: A Discussion about Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cell Line"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
6 February 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Priscilla Wald, Professor of English at Duke University, spoke to us about the ethical
implications of the Henrietta Lacks case, which has recently become widely known due to the
popularity of Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immoral Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was
a black woman born in 1920 in Virginia, whose cancer cells were used to develop an immortal
cell line known as HeLa cells. Although these cells became important to biomedical research,
Lacks herself died of cancer on a segregated hospital ward in 1951. Neither Lacks nor her
family knew that the cells were taken from here nor did they profit from the HeLa cell line. This
case has become a touchstone for many people in thinking about bioethics in the 20th and 21st
centuries.

Wald argued that many of the stories about Lacks do not help us address key issues of science
and justice. For example, some stories center around medical wrongdoing; however, it is not
clear what the specific wrongdoing was or how it could have addressed. When accounts focus
on wrongdoing they often imply that Lacks should have been treated better because she had
“special cells.” According to Wald, these stories miss the role that institutionalized racial
inequality played in the Lacks case along with hundreds of thousands of other, less spectacular
cases.

Wald’s own approach to narrating the Henrietta Lacks is located in a tradition that focuses on
structural violence. Thinkers in this tradition map the differential effects of the power through
stratified populations, analyze the language through which these structures appear to be
unchangeable, highlight where we have the responsibility to change it, chart the continuing
abuses of structural inequality, and call for reparative measures in the present for violence of the
past. Wald wants to use this model of critique as a means to redress (which has flourished in
ethnic studies) as a model for understanding scientific change and biopolitics.

Wald believes we need to pay attention to what kinds of stories are being told about Lacks and
the HeLa cell line and think about how structural racism figures in these stories. Wald gave
examples of how, after the disclosure that the cell line was developed from Lacks’ tissue, that the
cells themselves became gendered, racialized and sexed. When it appeared that HeLa cells were
making their way into other cell lines and biological specimens in laboratories, negative
language was used to describe the situation. It was said that HeLa cells were “virulent” and
“ruined” other cell lines. Racial overtones were especially evident in a case where a white
baby’s cells were “contaminated” with HeLa cells and appearing biologically “black,” leading to
racist humor about sexual promiscuity and uncertain paternity. When HeLa cells showed up in
Russian cell lines, they were figured as out of control American agents, cellular Mata Haris.
Wald argued that these racialized stories are taking the focus off of real-world solutions to
biomedical disparity. For example, talking about the Lacks case in terms of “bioslavery,”
spectacularly summoned the past to conjure a dystopian future where our tissues were no longer
our own property. According to Wald these kind of stories deflect attention from how historical
racism is still at work in the present. She argued that we should be having a better debate about
the healthcare system rather than entertaining anxieties about a sci-fi future. Wald concluded by
arguing that we should pay attention to institutional racisms and structural violence and endeavor
to turn critique into change. We need better stories that combine this kind of critique with a
belief in new possibilities.

During the discussion audience members were interested in what Wald meant by stories and
what it means to intervene at the level of the story. Sandra Harvey, who was struck by the pain
of Lacks’ family in Skloot’s book, asked how scientists could understand their pain as a way into
the justice questions. Jake Metcalf wondered if scientists have particular justice obligations in
biomedical matters. Donna Haraway argued that scientists are more responsible because
knowledge carries obligations and stories are important because they evoke the ability to care in
thicker ways. One biologist wondered what the “take home message” of the talk was and what
he was capable of doing to promote social justice. Martha Kenney affirmed her belief in
storytelling, but wondered what other caring practices scientists and others could do alongside
telling good stories. The discussion foregrounded the complex relationship between stories,
science, and biomedical justice.

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