Echoing the still confusing goals of the reparations movement in the U.S. is the significant case of Henrietta Lacks, the Black woman cancer patient whose cells were seized after her death and used by Johns Hopkins University Hospital and others without her consent, starting back in 1951. The lawsuit against the hospital and subsequent users just reached a deal over the unethical utilization of her cells, primarily with the pharmaceutical and biotech company, Thermo Fisher Scientific.
The company made billions in profit from the “HeLa” cell line developed from Miss Lacks cells, which helped produce remedies for multiple diseases, including the first successful polio vaccine. What happened to Henrietta Lacks is part of a long history of subterfuge experimentation and exploitation of Black people in biomedical research without proper acknowledgement or compensation.
Tissue taken from Miss Lacks’ tumor before she died of cervical cancer at 31 years of age became the first human cells to continuously grow and reproduce in lab dishes. What came to be called HeLa cells went on to become a cornerstone of modern medicine in the U.S. and the world, enabling countless scientific and medical innovations, including the development of the polio vaccine already mentioned, genetic mapping and even COVID-19 vaccines.
While most cell samples die shortly after being removed from the body, Henrietta Lacks’ cells survived and thrived in laboratories. They became known as the first immortalized human cell line because scientists could cultivate them indefinitely, meaning researchers anywhere could reproduce studies using identical cells. In the brief filed in support of the Lacks family, attorneys advocating for civil rights, women's rights and health care equity said the case is one of many in which U.S. doctors and scientists have regularly exploited minority patients without any compensation.
Another example often cited in this same context is that of James Marion Sims, a 19th century white Alabama surgeon who is still recognized as the father of modern gynecology, mainly from the experimental surgeries he performed on enslaved women without the use of anesthesia, claiming that Black people could endure more pain than White people. There were literally thousands of such victims, and there has been no known compensation to the victims for such treatment.
The point is, a great proportion of early American medical research is founded upon non-consensual experimentation upon systematically oppressed people, including Blacks and Native Americans. Again, the current court settlement in the Lacks case has been called, in some circles, a reparations settlement to compensate for this medical inequity.
Therein lies a very big problem. Of course, this case and any similar ones in this vein are critically important to come to terms with. But is this acknowledgement and compensation in the Lacks case reparations?
Another way to ask the same question is: Does this issue address any of the stated goals of the reparations master plan? You say you don’t know anything about a Reparations Master Plan that addresses what specific harms have occurred to Black folk in the U.S., and what specific measures are aimed at to address those harms?
That’s the point: without a clear, clarified path, how can one safely say reparations has been achieved? There have been—and continue to be—-so many negative impacts for being Black in the U.S., just what are those things, properly addressed, that will end the misery?
There must be the production of a Reparations Master Plan. Are you listening Los Angeles Reparations Commission?
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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