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Connections to Henrietta’s Story

Today I was browsing through some of the articles that people has posted on one of the science blogs that Professor Myers suggested we read and I found one particularly interesting. It’s about sperm donors and the problems that are arising from the United States Sperm Bank. I thought is was fascinating because not only does it involve current day issues that I never even thought about, but it is also relates to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” So here is my brief summary of the article, my thoughts, and how it relates to the novel.

The article is called 150 Kids, Anyone? US Sperm Banks Overdoing it and discusses the problems that are arising due to the fact that dozens of women are using the same sperm donor to have children. This means that for one sperm donor there could be 150 children born from that one donor. Both the mothers and the donors did not expect there to be that many, but certain sperm donors are very popular. This has become a problem because there are so many half-siblings now and they may not realize it, which could lead to incest and the spread of certain diseases. The article also brought up the following problem: “American sperm banks don’t keep rigorous records of children born from donor sperm, nor do they limit the number of children born from a particular donor.” I was very shocked by this last fact. I have never really given the idea of sperm banks too much thought, yet it truly surprises me that they would not limit the amount of children or keep good records.

All of this strongly correlates to Henrietta Lacks’ story.  One major connection is the problem of record keeping. Throughout the novel Rebecca Skloot has to dig deep to uncover the truths about Henrietta Lacks, who was also called other various names, like Helen Lane. That was the era though; there was no computer system that kept everyone’s names and Henrietta was black, which meant she was not always cared for as she should have been. That seems like a thing of the past though; with computers and  other current technologies one would think that record keeping would be no problem. Apparently for the sperm bank it is though, as more and more children are born from the same exact sperm donor. This is sad in that our culture has progressed so much since the 1950’s yet there are still problems such as these. This article also relates to Skloot’s book because of the real people that have to deal with this problem throughout their future. Just like there is a person behind the HeLa cells there are the children, mothers, and donors who all have stories that relate to the problems with the sperm bank. Children who were born using a sperm donor now have to be aware of who they are marrying and always wonder about their various half siblings. Also, HeLa cells are well-known among the science world but otherwise are not given much thought on a daily basis. Yet Henrietta’s family suffered through trying to understand and absorb the fact of the matter. And the idea of sperm donors and banks are also not given much thought by the public, yet everyday a woman may decide to use this method and it will influence the rest of her and her child’s life. It seemed unlikely at first that such an article would connect to Skloot’s book about Henrietta, yet they have very much in common.

  1. September 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    This reminds me of a news article I read a while back. A woman decided to sue a sperm donor for child support. According to the judge, she is likely to win. Now just imagine if 150 women decided to sue you for child support because you did not consider the legal ramifications before donating your sperm in either a compassionate gesture or a quick way to make money.

    Although there are men who have won in these types of unreasonable child support disputes, there is still a possibility that he could lose. So, the men of UW20:57, I urge you to reconsider if you are planning to be a sperm donor. Paying child support is one of the most emasculating things that an happen to you, so you don’t want it to happen especially when the circumstances are as ridiculous as this.

    Here is the article:

  2. September 10, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    This reminds me of a random poll I once saw on a random site. You touch greatly on the question, “should a mother be allowed to sue her sperm donor for custody?” and in the majority of the time the answer is yes. However, what is the answer to the question, “should a sperm donor get custody rights?” Personally, I do not agree with sperm donation for exactly these reasons. I know it helps families who are unable to have their own children but I feel like its too unstable of a process medically and legally. If a man can donate as much sperm as he wants then its like you said, those kids will have to worry about not marrying their half-sibling and having medical issues with their own children due to the incest. Also as much as I disagree with both suits, if a woman can go after her sperm donor for child support then the sperm donor should be able to go after her for custody.

    As it relates to Henrietta’s case, the question is “why didn’t the doctor ask permission to use her tissue sample?” but I pose another question, “even if the doctor had asked, would Henrietta have been allowed to say no?” I agree that Gey should have asked for permission but in his defense, things were completely different back then than they are now. However, even saying that, I don’t believe Henrietta should have been given the right to say no, even if he had asked because her cells had the potential to help cure not only her cancer but multiple fatal diseases people contracted regularly. If she had been asked and given the option to say no, I believe the practice of medicine wouldn’t be nearly as advanced as it is now. Don’t get me wrong, I still think its wrong that the Lacks family wasn’t compensated in anyway like they should been once word that Henrietta’s cells were the basis of the medical advancement but whether Gey should have asked her or not shouldn’t have made a difference. The tissue sample still should have been used like it was.

  3. September 11, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Jada makes a really good point. Although it was unfair to not compensate the Lacks family for the cells that originally belonged to Henrietta Lacks, her cells benefited the medical field. Whether or not Gey asked Henrietta can be overshadowed by the thought of what would of happened if those cells were never sampled. The uniqueness of her cells led to many discoveries like the cure to many diseases as Jada said so in the end the pro’s outweigh the cons. It might be harsh but the cells that caused unjust to one family, helped countless of other families. Moreover, I think the problem with Henrietta’s story wasn’t simple about weak record keeping but about privacy. Patient records and files aren’t easy to get by if you aren’t a doctor. Furthermore, in the 1950’s the technology in hospitals isn’t nearly as impressive as it is now. More importantly, patient information was not that vital. Now a days there are countless documents to sign and forms to fill out. All Henrietta had to do was sign a single piece of paper and that was her documentation.

  4. September 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    Although Henrietta never actually said yes, there was no evidence that she was against it. In fact, part of the novel shows that she was happy that her cells were taken. According to the book, not long before she died, Gey told her that her cells would be taken and they have the potential to cure diseases for future generations. After he told her, she seemed happy, despite the pain that she was enduring. Although there is no existing evidence that this short encounter occurred, there are people such as Mary who would confirm it.

    Jada is completely right. When a sperm donor sues for custody, the case is probably just as frivolous as when a sperm donor gets sued for child support. After all, we live in America. The most sue- happy nation in the world.

    • Danika
      September 11, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      A couple of people have commented that Gey “told [Henrietta]” about the ways he was using her cells for research, but did he? Skloot says “there is no record that George Gey ever visited Henrietta in the hospital . . . everyone I talked to who might know said that Gey and Henrietta never met.” She follows those statements with the tale about Laure Aurelian, who is the only person who claims the two met. Skloot reports Aurelian’s claim: “George told me he leaned over Henrietta’s bed and said, ‘Your cells will make you immortal.'”.

      My own response to this passage is to see it not as about “what happened,” but about the stories scientists tell about what happened. It actually seems far more likely to me that it is important to Aurelian to believe that Lacks knew than that Gey actually met Lacks. Why would he? He was taking cells from every cancer patient who came through the ward.

  5. September 11, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I found this blog post to be very interesting because it is a topic that never crossed my mind as being an issue. I like the connections that you made to Henrietta’s story and I agree that yes, after all of these advances in science and technology, why can we not properly label or organize these important donations? It seems funny to me that we can use our phones to play games and surf the net (#outdatedcomputerlingo), but we cannot keep track of sperm donations. This entire topic reminds me of the movie, The Kids are Alright, in which two siblings seek out their sperm donor. In the movie, this relationship that is formed complicates everything, but that is for dramatic purposes. It doesn’t change the fact that donating anything- cells or sperm or maybe even organs, can be a very tricky subject. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has proved this and the article which this blog post is about has proved this. Since there are no clear rules about how the donors should be treated, there is a lot of confusion and conflict that is formed. I do agree with post #2 that Henrietta should have been given a choice, I hope that people are given a choice now about whether or not their cells can be taken for experiements.

  6. September 11, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    I highly disagree with the idea that a woman should be able to sue a man for child support, nor should a sperm donor ask for custodial rights. After reading the article, I can understand why the woman sued in that particular case, but in general I do not think it right for someone to want more from a donation than the donation itself. Sperm donors freely give their genes so that others who could benefit from them may fertilize them. This act does not give the man any right whatsoever to the child that is born from his sperm, as he gives up his ownership in the donation. Based on this, I don’t believe that either party is entitled to anything further from the other.

  7. September 12, 2011 at 1:55 am

    What struck me about the article and Henrietta’s story was the lack of regulation over both of these industries. Politicians argue that science moves too fast for policy to keep up, but it seems like the government doesn’t even try when given the chance. From my understanding of the book, the regulations regarding tissue cultures are still murky today and there aren’t any laws at all regarding sperm donation. I think implementing laws like those in the UK would set a precedent for right and wrong and clear up a lot of the problems that having 150 half-brothers and sisters would create.

    I read an argument once that science shouldn’t be regulated by government because politicians don’t understand the complex issues that science presents, but I think that politicians could learn just like we are.

  8. September 12, 2011 at 2:22 am

    Wow. As i read through your post, it really surprised me that situations such as this arise today. What really captured my attention as i read through was subject of incest. Yes incest today seems morally wrong and yes biologically due to recessive alleles can cause various defects in children, but the fact that it still happens in this day and age due to situations like the one you presented was personally very interesting. Skloot mentions in her novel about how all the children have hearing difficulties and also how the oldest daughter Elsie had developmental difficulties. Going back and reading through It made me think about how these problems related to incest. In the beginning of the novel Skloot mentions how all Henrietta and Day had been sleeping together since the were brought up with one another in the same house hold, despite being related. Also she mentions how some of her cousins such as Galen had been attracted to Henrietta makes me wonder about how these health problems in the children related to the incest among the parents. Its strange to think that the sperm donor situation has the same effect. Overall this was just an interesting thought, and an interesting post.

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