Your Uterus is For Sale: The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks
Who Was Henrietta Lacks
You have probably never heard of Henrietta Lacks, but she is probably the most valuable woman alive. The thing is, she died in 1951. But her HeLa cells survive this day. The medical mystery surrounding her immortal cells were revealed in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Like most Black women of her day, Henrietta Lacks was poor and uneducated. She worked as a tobacco farmer in her native Virginia before moving to Baltimore as an adult.When she experienced severe abdominal pain at the age of 31, Henrietta sought treatment at John Hopkins. She was diagnosed with cancer, and doctors there collected cells from her body to reveal the extent of her illness.
The cancer had spread through her entire body, and she died in October of 1951. Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave, and to this day the exact location of her remains are a mystery.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
After her death, scientists noticed something amazing about the cells collected from her biopsy: her cells stayed alive and even thrived outside of Henrietta’s body. No human cells had ever achieved this feat before.
Doctors were eager to examine these ‘immortal’ cells. More than 74,000 studies gave scientists insights into cellular biology, new vaccines, and even immortality research. Those breakthroughs created billions of dollars in profits for the companies that used the HeLa cells – which doctors named after Henrietta Lacks herself. Today, scientists have grown 20 tons of her cells and there are almost 11,000 patents involving them.
Under normal circumstances, an individual would be compensated for the use of their biological property. But not in this case – Henrietta Lacks was a poor Black woman living in the 1950s. She was treated like the property that white supremacy saw her as. Neither she nor her family were compensated for the massive profits generated by her cells.
In fact, the Lacks family weren’t told about the HeLa cells discovery until 1974 when researchers wanted to examine other members of the family for the ‘immortal’ traits. Now, 62 years later, the descendants of Henrietta Lacks are only just now being asked for permission to use the cells. There is still no word of any financial compensation.
Could the same thing happen to you? Could doctors steal a piece of your body and profit from it without your knowledge?
Your Uterus is For Sale
Today, scientists and doctors aren’t just taking cells from your body.
The groundbreaking documentary Maafa 21 introduced us to the weapon of white supremacy known as eugenics. In the documentary, eugenics programs encouraged or forced young Black women to undergo the removal of their uterus to prevent the spread of cancers or unwanted pregnancies.You can watch the full documentary here.
Usually, uterus removal is suggested as an unnecessary preventative measure. In fact, two out of every three hysterectomies are completely unnecessary. Often, these hysterectomies are encouraged or done to either train medical professionals on a living subject, or for profit.
According to the director of obstetrics and gynecology at a New York municipal hospital, “In most major teaching hospitals in New York City, it is the unwritten policy to do elective hysterectomies on poor black and Puerto Rican women, with minimal indications, to train residents” – Source
Like hysterectomies, abortions among black women are disproportionately high in the U.S. On average, 1,876 black babies are aborted every day in the United States. And according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Black women are 5 times more likely than white women to have an abortion.
Several years ago, when 17,000 aborted babies were found in a dumpster outside a laboratory in Los Angeles, 12-15,000 were observed to be Black. – Source
This plays into both eugenics and the weapon of white supremacy known as fraud: deception with the intention of financial gain. Victims are deceived or encouraged to give up their pregnancy or their reproductive organs to companies that profit from them.
What Happens To Your Fetus After An Abortion?
What happens to your fetus after an abortion? The same thing that happens to your uterus when it is removed: it is sold to drug companies, the government, and universities for profit. In 2016, Panned Parenthood was busted for profiting on the sale of the organs of fetuses they aborted.
DNA testing companies are in on it, too. When you submit your DNA for ancestral testing, those companies can use your sample for other purposes without your consent. For instance, 23andMe made a $60m deal with Genentech in 2015 to provide samples for the study of Parkinson’s disease.
These companies charge you for hysterectomies, abortions, and testing, then make even more selling that tissue to drug companies. And business is good for these companies: the market for biological samples could be worth $23 Billion by 2018.
The exploitation of Henrietta Lacks has opened a Pandora’s box for pharmaceutical companies to encourage unnecessary and dangerous medical procedures for Black women. As long as we allow this exploitation to persist, we play into our own destruction. As a community, we must wake up to the weapons that to destroy our bodies and erode our wealth. Here are three ways to do that:
- We must seek out qualified healers in our community that give us the resources we need to protect ourselves from predatory institutions. Seek them out here, here, and here.
- We must stop the integration of our children into white families, and create Black-on-Black adoption programs.
- We must demand transparency and compensation from companies that would secretly profit from us.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should be on the shelves of every Black man and woman. Tell her story to your classrooms, friends, and fellow organizers. The truth shall set us free.