If you missed HBO’s TV movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last weekend then I highly encourage you to watch it. The movie is based on the award winning book of the same name by Rebecca Skloot. My co-workers and I had the privilege of attending a pre-screening thanks to HBO and Johns Hopkins last Friday here on the East Baltimore-Medical Campus. We came away impressed and discussing the impact Henrietta and her family’s story had on medical ethics.
Starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta Lacks’s daughter, the movie focuses on the impact of Henrietta’s family when her biopsied cells became famous in the medical and scientific world. The movie hints at the ethical missteps that occurred surrounding Henrietta and her family and highlights the basic human conditions of love, loss and friendship. However, a great deal of the book was cut out of the film. Having read the book shortly after being published, I remain most drawn to how the story of Henrietta Lacks changed the culture of medicine. In addition to the movie version’s themes, the book explores the development of medical ethics, the impact of the unprecedented events on the doctors and pathologists involved, how common procedures changed and the ethics surrounding emerging medical technology. As much as I enjoyed HBO’s adaptation, I missed the ethical questions in the midst of sharing Deborah Lacks’s search to know the mother she lost at such a young age.
Johns Hopkins granted HBO full access to their archives and allowed several days of filming to take place on the hospital grounds. The Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute also honors Lacks through the Urban Health Institute Henrietta Lacks Memorial Award, which is a $15,000 award that supports community-university collaborations. For anybody interested in the story, I highly recommend both the book and movie