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By Congressman Kweisi Mfume
The chronicles of human history have always contained chapters depicting martyrs whose legacies are crafted through their selfless sacrifice. For most of these figures, their physical lives were finite, from birth until death. The effects their lives have on the world after they depart continue their story in spirit. But for Henrietta Lacks, even after she took her tragic last breath, microscopic pieces of her physical body that, I believe, are a part of a Divine miracle have remained and forever changed countless lives through their medical applications.
Henrietta Lack’s tale is one of a saving grace in the scientific community, discovered by what some call chance, but I deem as fate. Despite questionable moral implications surrounding the aftermath of her medical care, it was Ms. Lacks’ destiny to serve as a martyr saving the lives of those whom she would never meet, and who in turn would never be able to share their thanks. So, this imposes the question, how can we collectively and fittingly show our gratitude to Ms. Henrietta Lacks for her impact on the world?
On March 15, I introduced legislation to answer this very question, by posthumously honoring the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Ms. Lacks was born in Roanoke, Va. in 1920, and later moved to Baltimore, Md. with her family. In 1951, at the age of 31, she sought treatment from the Johns Hopkins Hospital for prolonged bleeding. At the time, the hospital was one of few that would treat African Americans. Shortly after her admission to the hospital, she was diagnosed with aggressive cervical cancer that would lead to her unfortunate death only eight months later.
While being treated, the hospital collected samples of Henrietta’s cells. Her cells, labeled “HeLa cells,” were a medical revelation, reproducing at a high rate and capable of dividing numerous times without dying.
This breakthrough resulted in Ms. Lacks’ cells becoming a revolutionary medicinal tool, used to develop the polio vaccine and advance treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, hemophilia, and others. In addition, her cells have contributed to breakthroughs in cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and many more functionalities.
While her cells will remain immortalized in the medical field, Ms. Lacks’ story must endure as well, for her tale is one of tremendous sacrifice amongst tragedy. It was unbeknownst to Lacks and her family, without their consent, that her cells were stored by the hospital. While technically allowed by law, the doctors and administrators’ actions prompted understandable privacy concerns for the Lacks family, whose genetic information was literally under the microscope for the whole world to see. Historical cases of medical exploitation against racial minorities, such as the case of Ms. Lacks as well as the Tuskegee experiments, have resulted in low enrollment in clinical trials designed for healthcare research.
In an effort to combat this trend, the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act was signed into law last year, an effort I spearheaded, which targets healthcare disparities amongst minorities by diversifying clinical trials to treat cancer. While this law honors the name of Ms. Lacks, and rightfully so, I have urged my colleagues to immortalize her legacy once more through a Congressional Gold Medal. The response from the Lacks family, whose opinion I so greatly value, to the congressional action I have undertaken has been both appreciative and encouraging.
“My family applauds our Congressman Kweisi Mfume for his leadership on the introduction of the bill to posthumously award a Congressional Gold Medal to my beloved mother, Henrietta Lacks,” said Lawrence Lacks, Sr., Henrietta Lacks’ eldest son.
“This year, through our family-led HELA100: The Henrietta Lacks Initiative, we commemorate 70 years since her ‘HeLa cells’ changed the world. In life, my mother gave to many in our community, and today is a full-circle moment during Women’s History Month to have Henrietta Lacks’ legacy advanced by Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who grew up just blocks away from my family,” added Mr. Lacks, Sr.
While her cells will be attributed to saving countless lives, it was at the cost of Ms. Lacks’ own survival, leaving behind her husband, five children, and generations of the Lacks family who would take great pride in hearing her story through acts of commemoration like the Congressional Gold Medal that I have introduced.
Ms. Lacks’ legacy sparks a complicated, yet necessary dialogue on scientific breakthrough, entangled with questionable ethics, yielding privacy intrusions against an African American woman. Her life is far deserving of celebration through the Congressional Gold Medal. The bestowment of this award to Ms. Lacks would encapsulate the everlasting effects started by a few microscopic cells that have transcended into conversations on race, the paradox of scientific advancement amidst sacrifice, and what it means to live forever.
Kweisi Mfume represents the Seventh Congressional District of Maryland.
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