HeLa is the story of remarkable success and shocking failure that starkly demonstrates how basic human rights have been continually sacrificed on the altar of scientific progress.
Henrietta Lacks was poor, uneducated and black. This, it seems, was enough for the medical profession to ignore her humanity and personhood for over 60 years. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 1951, a doctor took samples of her tumour cells without her permission and, as was the custom, labelled them with the first two letters of the patient’s Christian name and surname – HeLa.
These cells, unlike any before or since, stayed alive and reproduced outside the human body, and could therefore be cultivated and used for scientific research. The HeLa cell line was soon mass-produced and sold all over the world. It is estimated that the HeLa cell line is currently being used in more than 90% of labs world-wide and has been used in over 60,000 scientific experiments, enabling the development of vaccines (Polio being the first), biochemistry, cryogenics, IVF and the mapping of the human genome, to name but a few completely life-changing discoveries. Nobel prizes have been won, trillions of dollars made by those in the medical profession – and yet Henrietta’s children could not afford even to see a doctor, never mind have medical treatment.
This incredible story, inspired by ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot, was written and performed by Glasgow-based Adura Onashile. Playing all the characters in Henrietta’s story, Onashile gave an assured performance that displayed her credibility as well as her versatility. Using a combination of movement, sound and film to augment the dialogue, the whole piece was presented in dramatic black and white to illustrate themes that are anything but.
A number of issues rose to the surface during the process of outlining Henrietta’s story. These issues, although presented historically, are actually worryingly current and becoming increasingly urgent – from inequalities of the receipt and quality of health care, through the finer details of informed consent, to the pressing issue of ownership of data and information, and the right to do what you will with your own body.
Carefully placed between these big issues, were the very ordinary, but very personal aspects of Henrietta’s character – such as how she loved to wear scarlet nail polish and sometimes liked to sneak out late at night to dance through the early hours, losing herself in the music. It was these seemingly incidental snippets that somehow brought her to life and were strangely moving – a reminder that beneath the story of HeLa was a living and breathing human being.
The irony of this piece is that Henrietta’s personal story, as poignant as it is, has mainly served to highlight the arrogance of those in authority and the importance of ongoing ethical issues that are still yet to be resolved. However, in August 2013, more than 60 years after her cells were taken without her permission, Henrietta’s family were finally asked for their consent. Perhaps some sort of progress is finally being made and perhaps the work of people like Onashile can actually help to make a difference.
3rd and 4th Oct