The Immortal Question of Ethics and Health Care

SMC Panel Is Inspired by First-Year Reading on Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

book coverThere’s nothing like curling up on a couch with a freshly brewed Chai tea and engulfing yourself in the pages of a quality book, and Saint Mary’s College loves a good book as much as anybody. In fact, the college requires reading for all incoming freshmen to prepare them for an academic career filled with days of turning the crisp pages of some of the greatest literary classics.

Each year, the assigned reading addresses an issue the school feels is worthy of attention. They may not narrate a young girl’s complex romance with a vampire, and some selections may be controversial, but each is chosen because of its social importance. This year’s reading for the freshman class was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

This riveting look into the life of a black American woman whose cell tissue was retrieved from her without her consent and then used for years in medical experiments may not have been the average 18-year-old’s choice for summer reading…but the story of Henrietta Lacks and the questions of medical ethics proved to be a thought-provoking read for this year’s freshmen.

Recently, Professor Tom Poundstone from the Theology & Religious Studies department and Dr. Ali Rezapour from the school’s Health & Wellness Center led a discussion about Henrietta Lacks’ story, the current state of health care, medical ethics and some controversial medical practices in U.S. history.

As Poundstone recounted the syphilis study in Tuskegee, Alabama, and how lower class black men with syphilis were probed and used for medical data but were never told of their condition or treated for it, the audience became a sea of shaking heads. How could this have happened?

Rezapour attempted to answer that question. He engaged the audience in a fervent discussion on the current state of health care and how medical ethics is not just relevant to these egregious cases of medical experimentation but also to the politics and structure of health care.

One student was especially moved by the discussion: “Both Professor Poundstone and Dr. Rezapour brought to light the injustices in the United States for-profit health care system and encouraged the audience to examine the industry of healthcare and advocate for a better system,” said Maggie Powers ’14.

The discussion on “Henrietta Lacks and the Health Care Gap” showed just how beneficial a seemingly innocuous required reading can be.  The story of Henrietta Lacks helped Saint Mary’s students remember that health care is important to everyone and should be at the forefront of our national conversation.

As Rezapour said, “We truly live in one world. The health of one person affects us all.”

By Josephine Kirk ’14

Note: The SMC library has launched a new display and online guide to resources that help students explore concepts from the First Year Experience Common Reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Many of these items are on display in the library's foyer and may be checked out. You can also learn more in the online guide.