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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Book Review

This book review targets medical students undertaking their internships at a general hospital. The review focuses on medical ethics as portrayed in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.


The author ofthe book titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks communicates the nature of the certain research practices commonplace in the past that are recognized as unethical in the modern medical settings. Skloot vividly illustrates and discredits the scientific conventions as she conveys the Lacks family’s agonizing experience. The mother of the family Henrietta died of cancer, but her cells live on as a lab specimen because they were harvested without her permission. The author presents all the hidden facts that are available at the present moment. Humanity is still benefiting from the research made possible by the likes of Henrietta Lacks who is not unrecognized and forgotten. As such, while the discoveries of the previous generations of scientists are significant, their lack of ethics is all the more significant in informing the current medical practices.

Ethics and morality in medical practice are an issue of critical concern to any practitioner. Four major principles including non-maleficence, autonomy, justice, and beneficence guide the daily actions of professionals in the modern medical sphere. Such aspects of medical ethics were also evident in the past as documented by Skloot. Ethics and morality are a prominent theme in the book as there are numerous ethical arguments on informed consent that falls under the principle of autonomy. Autonomy dictates that patients make decisions concerning their health independently. As such, prior to any medical procedure the informed consent of the patients on whether they agree with the process must be sought. Additionally, the patients must be given an opportunity to make the decision without any form of coercion. The benefits, likelihood of success, and/or any possible failures must also be communicated to the patient before they are taken for any medical procedure.

            Several instances in the book that how essential the principle of autonomy is. Henrietta Lacks was an African American wife and mother of five. She sought treatment for an aggressive type of cervical cancer. Doctors at Johns Hopkins without her consent and knowledge extracted her cancerous and healthy cell samples which they employed in the formation of HeLa (an immortal cell line); the specimen was used in numberless discoveries and medical innovations (Skloot 33). Even though the patient involved in the case had signed a consent form that allowed the medical practitioners at Johns Hopkins to conduct a surgical procedure, she was only informed of the medical processes for treatment of cancer and not research (Skloot 31). Autonomy requires that a patient is informed of all possible medical procedures so they can make informed decisions on whether to undergo the surgical procedure or not. The actions of the medical practitioner was unethical and would be unacceptable in the modern medical setting.

            Henrietta underwent treatment during a period when medical ethics were implemented differently in relation to the current principles. In the 1950s some medical values such as confidentiality were considered important; however, much attention was not paid to issues such as informed concerned and autonomy (Skloot 33). It was assumed that doctors know what was paramount to their patients. As such, patients were only occasionally engaged in the decision-making on their health conditions. The balance between medical paternalism and patient anatomy as medical professionals know and understand it today has shifted significantly. As such, adhering to the principle of autonomy is mandatory in the current medical field.

Analysis of the Review

The review targeted medical students; as such, medical terms were used in the analysis. It is assumed that medical students who have completed the undergraduate program have adequate knowledge and are conversant with professional jargon, so explanations were not necessary. Furthermore, the the review only focused on conveying information on the issues of ethics and morals as observed in the medical field because these topics are relevant to young medical practitioners.

An official tone was used in the presentation of the review since the writer had no direct personal association with students. Additionally, the intent of the review was to inform the audience of the issue of medical ethics, justifying the relevance of an official tone. Only cases on medical ethics were reviewed, other topics discussed in the book were not included in the review.

Note on Rhetorical Analysis Rhetorical analysis refers to the breakdown of a non-fiction work into parts and provision of an explanation on how the various parts work to inform or persuade an audience. Throughout the class, I learned that a non-fiction work can contain content suitable for a wide range of audiences. It is possible to undertake a rhetoric analysis of a work to communicate with the selected group of people. Regardless of the intention of the chosen content, proper selection of a tone suitable for the chosen audience is desired. I used rhetoric analysis skills and tone selection to formally inform the medical students on the issue of medical ethics and morality.

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