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The HBO film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” brings to light the contributions made to medicine by one lowly African American woman’s cells in 1951 – unbeknownst to her or her family. The first cells to grow outside the human body, and subsequently dubbed “HeLa” cells, hers was a contribution that has helped advance medical research, develop medications for a variety of illnesses and diseases, and launch the multi-million dollar biomedical industry.
It is an adaptation of a book that bears the same title. A book that introduces the world to Henrietta Lacks – another hidden figure in American history. The movie tells a story that has been delayed in highlighting an important figure in science and medicine, but a timely story nonetheless. Hailed as the mother of
biotech, Lacks’ introduction to a new generation happened on the weekend that many across the United States chose to march for science. But, it also comes at a time when there is an intense ongoing debate about women’s rights.
This moving account of Lacks’ life is about many things – bioethics and informed consent, how race and poverty can impact healthcare, mental illness, and faith and family. It is also about a woman’s power over her body and over her story. This powerful narrative has the potential to inform the current debate that questions a women’s right to medical, reproductive, maternal, and sexual liberty.
While there is much to be said about the injustices Mrs. Lacks and her family endured, there is also much to inspire us to recognize and value the power of our stories. We may not know how to calculate mathematical flight trajectories like Katherine Johnson or have the “immortal” cells of Henrietta Lacks, but one thing is for certain, there is something we can offer the world that will help others even after we’re long gone. Lacks’ account illustrates the power of owning your story, and how that story can change hearts, minds, and industries.