A Note to the Nation Infected with a Severe Case of Medical Apartheid

HBO recently announced the debut of a much awaited movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. An adaptation of the nonfiction book, the TV movie has been in the works for nearly 10 years and is said to debut on Saturday, April 22nd.

The film recounts the rather controversial story of Henrietta Lacks, African American woman whose cells were used to “create the first immortal human cell line.” Going to Johns Hopkins for a routine treatment, sample cells were extracted from her cervix and were taken without her knowledge or consent. The cells, able to stay alive longer than others used in cancer research, provided a “medical breakthrough” in the field. Clearly worth a lot of money and the ability to lead to cures, her cells were sent to labs across the world. Despite this, Lacks died and her family remained in poverty, unaware of such medical success. The case continues to raise concerns about patient privacy and personal rights.

Depending on who you ask, the conversation surrounding this story-turned-movie go much deeper than imagined.

There’s been a rather troubling history of medical experimentation on African Americans. The book, Acres of Skin documents Human exploitation at Holmesburg Prison. Author, Allen Hornblum, expresses the work of unethical dermatologist, Albert Kligman, who payed prisoners to be used as guinea pigs in a variety of medical experiments. Such experimentation disproportionately impacted Black men, highlighting issues of physical abuse of inmates and the use of lethal tests such as radioactive isotopes and placing chemical warfare agents directly on the skin.

Many historians and scientists are aware of the Tuskegee experiment, a government funded clinical study aimed at following the progression of untreated syphilis in Black men from rural areas. Under the guise of free health care, meals, and medical insurance, men participated in the study in which they were told “they were being treated for bad blood.” Despite knowing many participants had been infected, the men were never told of their illness and later, researchers withheld treatment. That’s right, despite the existence of penicillin, treatment was unprovided to the nearly 400 infected participants.

Just last week, NPR explored historical archives, highlighting the story of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey, enslaved women who endured gynecologic surgeries “in the name of science.” Dr. James Marion Simms, often referred to as the Father of Modern Gynecology, practiced his techniques on the above women, unconsenting and unanesthetized.

No matter what the era or involved party, all of the stories lead to scientists and medical personnel’s unprecedented concern not for the lives and fair treatment of fellow human beings, but of fame, fortune, and gluttony.

It would be ridiculous and wrong to say our health care system hasn’t improved. These cases lead to an increase in ethical standards such as the establishment of the Office of Human Research Protections and the variety of federal laws and regulations — but major problems still exist. The fact of the matter is that many Black men and women still receive inadequate medical treatment. According to a 2015 study, Black Americans are systematically under treated for pain, suggesting those with medical training may use false beliefs about medical judgement, thus contributing to racial disparities in medicine.

So that’s why the production and debut of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is so necessary. Utilizing visuals as a wave of communication, HBO will highlight a not so great history, informing the present, so we can make positive changes in the future.