Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Discussion Questions for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Back in March, I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I was so impacted by the story that I decided to choose it as a reading selection for my book club. However, as much as I searched, I was unable to find a published discussion guide for the book to facilitate a discussion. So my friends Robin, Angela, and I collaborated and came up with a list of the following discussion questions, which I hope might help anyone else out there looking on the internet for a discussion guide for this book:


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Discussion Questions

1. The passage in which the initial fated cells were removed from Henrietta Lacks’s body reads as follows (see page 33):

“With Henrietta unconscious on the operating table in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups, the surgeon on duty, Dr. Lawrence Wharton, Jr., sat on a stool between her legs. He peered inside Henrietta, dilated her cervix, and prepared to treat her tumor. But first – though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor – Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby. Then he placed the samples in a glass dish.”

Bearing in mind that those two tissue samples removed from Henrietta were not removed in an attempt to treat her cancer, but rather purely for purposes of research, was it wrong for the doctor to remove the sample tissue in the first place? Was it wrong for Dr. Gey to collect those samples for the purpose of trying to grow them in controlled conditions? Does the end – i.e., the immeasurable benefit to humankind resulting from those tissue samples – justify the means – i.e., removing tissue from a person without their consent or knowledge?


2. Discuss the process of taking these cancerous cells and growing them in the “auger” or medium that allowed them to continue to multiply. Was it her human cell line?

(Note: As genetic knowledge has increased HeLa is: not really a human cell line at all because it involves a genetic fusion of a papilloma virus and Henrietta’s cervical cells. The hybrid has its own genome and attempts have been made to have the cell line recognized as a species in its own right. Of course this cell line also contaminated other cell lines in labs around the world. In a Feb. 2010 paper, HeLa was found as a contaminant of 106 out of 306 cell lines tested.



3. Did you get the impression that Henrietta was treated any differently than a rich, white woman would have been (assuming the hospital was also collecting cell samples)?


4. How do you feel about knowing that you still do not have total control over your body once you go to see a doctor? If you discovered that tissue routinely removed from your body at some point in the past went on to significantly benefit science and research, would you feel that you should somehow be compensated? What do you think is more important – a person’s personal rights over their own tissue, or contributing to science and research for the benefit of all humankind?


5. Was it a good thing for the members of the Lacks family that the author wrote this book? Was this attempt different from previous attempts to write about the Lacks family and Henrietta in particular?


6. How much impact on the Lacks family members’ long term lives did Henrietta’s early demise have? Do you think that her children’s lives would have turned out significantly different had Henrietta not died so young?


7. Was it hubris, lack of “patient experience,” or frankly, sheer stupidity on the part of the researchers who contacted the family later for blood/DNA samples, to think the family understood what they were doing and why were they doing it?


8. Why has the discovery of the existence of HeLa cells been so difficult for the Lacks family? Discuss the family’s ignorance and their lack of medical knowledge. Why did it take until 2001, 50 years after Henrietta’s death, for a researcher at John Hopkins to show Deborah the cells and tell her these weren’t Henrietta’s regular cells, just trillions of cancerously transformed cells, and that there was never going to be a clone of her mother?


9. Do you think the family is owed money for the sale of the HeLa cells? Do you agree with their feeling that they should be compensated?


10. Do you think that the attitude among some of the Lacks family members that they should be monetarily compensated for Henrietta’s contribution to science is born out of their poverty and/or oppression based on their race? Do you think if the family were financially comfortable, white, and not the subjects of regular discrimination that their feelings of being owed compensation might be different?


11. When the doctor of the patient, Mr. Moore, lied to him about the financial value of his cells, do you think the doctor behaved unethically, and the court should have ruled against him?


12. What did the author hope to accomplish by writing this book? Did she accomplish what she set out to do? To what do you attribute the family’s change of heart regarding the HeLa cells?


13. Was the presence of the author in the book disruptive or appropriate?


14. How realistic was the characterization, especially of Deborah and Zakariyya? Would you want to meet any of them? Did you like them?


15. What life lessons can be learned from this account?


16. Do you think the bad things that happened to the family were based on their race, particularly in regards to Elsie (Henrietta’s daughter who was institutionalized) and Henrietta’s hospital care? Was it forgivable based on the time period or should amends be made?


17. How does the setting figure into the book? Is the setting a character? Does it come to life? Did you feel you were experiencing the time and place in which the book was set? How did you feel at the end when Clover was gone? Do you think this was an allegory for Henrietta’s family’s travails?


18. How realistic is it for Courtney Speed, the grocery store owner in Turner Station, to start a museum?

19. Discuss the medical breakthroughs from HeLa cells. Have your attitudes or ideas towards medical research changed in any way due to reading this book?


20. Ownership of genetic material is still a vexed issue. Many human genes have been patented and a battle is currently being fought through the U.S. courts between doctors and a biotech company owning the patents for genes used in breast-cancer research screening. What are your thoughts about research and patents in this now “profit making” industry?


58 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing these questions! Our book club is tomorrow night and I couldn't find any questions anywhere... not even on Oprah's web page!! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I also want to thank you!! I am leading a discussion this Friday and decided to do one last-ditch effort to find questions before taking the time to make up some myself. You are a real time-saver. And the questions are fantastic. Can't wait to discuss this book!

    ReplyDelete
  3. THANK YOU!!! You've completely saved our book club discussion (which is in 15 minutes)!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Ditto!! Our book club meets this Wednesday night. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I could never have come up with questions this good. I looked everywhere also and could not find any. Thank you very much!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I looked in vain for questions when my book club selected the book. The questions are great. I'm sure our discussion next week will be much enhanced as a result of your thoughtfulness. Thanks again from a member of "Well Read in Black and White"

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you again, from yet another book group organizer. We're meeting tomorrow night, and looking for good discussion questions. Thanks for blazing the trail for those of us who read this book after you, and for making a good map!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks for the questions. This was an amazing book worth talking about!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks so much! This is our book for Jan (picked by me), so this will really help!

    ReplyDelete
  10. These are wonderful questions! We are discussing this book in early November. Thanks so much.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Beautiful questions and points to consider. Thanks for helping all of us out here wanting to lead a good discussion. Ours is a church book group so we are interested in all aspects of the questions raised.

    BB

    ReplyDelete
  12. My book club meets tomorrow night and I'm the discussion leader. Thanks for the great questions!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Ditto for me - book club tomorrow night! Thanks a bunch!!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Thanks - loved the book and the questions!!!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thank you- I'm hosting a book club this evening and these are fantastic questions for prompting discussion!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Thanks for writing these! I have my book club tomorrow night and also couldn't find discussion questions for this book(I notice that seems to be the trend in all these comments)! You've been a great help! :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. I agree with all comments above. We have book club on Saturday discussing this book and I am hosting. The questions are great and really thought provoking. Hope to have a great discussion! Thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Do you have answers? This is for my ap biology class!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Thanks for posting the questions. I am also in charge of the discussion of the book, which is fantastic, by the way, isn't it?. I am not sure if I'll use them or not, but thank you very much just in case!
    Magdalena

    ReplyDelete
  20. Thank you, thank you, thank you! These are wonderful questions. Much better than any I would have come up with!

    Darcie

    ReplyDelete
  21. I echo the same sentiments as everyone else. Thanks so much for publishing your group's discussions. We are meeting this afternoon and are grateful to have such wonderful discussion points :D

    ~ Elizabeth - "Lunch Time Book Club" LTBC Frederick, MD

    ReplyDelete
  22. For moderating my book club, I usually don't use online book discussion questions, because they often sound inane or stilted. Your questions for this book were very intelligent and thought provoking, so I'll actually use quite a few! Thanks for posting & sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  23. Thank you so much. We will be sharing these with our patrons.

    Cynthia Provenzano
    Pikes Peak Library District

    ReplyDelete
  24. Thanks so much for posting these questions. I searched also everywhere last year when I first read this book and had come up with questions of my own. But yours are very clear and they address almost every aspect that should be discussed about the book.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Great questions! Will use these along with some cancer-fighting snacks for my Lit. Chicks meeting this week. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Thank you! We have a discussion next Wednesday. Shawna in Dayton, Ohio

    ReplyDelete
  27. You have saved me so much searching. I found the book fascinating and very thought provoking.
    Our book club meets next Tuesday and we'll certainly use some of your material.
    Thank you :-)

    ReplyDelete
  28. Our book club meets next month, we have an invited guest, who is a biologist, we will be using most of your questions durning our discussion. You have presented some interesting aspects which will be brought up regarding ethics in acquiring specimens for medical research.
    Thank you for sharing,
    Nancy in Minnesota

    ReplyDelete
  29. Where can i find some answers for my biology class?

    ReplyDelete
  30. Britney, you have to read the book for the answers!

    ReplyDelete
  31. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I appreciate your willingness to share your discussion questions. Am anticipating a lively discussion! Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Great questions. Just what I needed for my book club next week. Your questions are interesting and thought provoking. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Thank you for these questions, our book club meets next week and I will use many of these.

    This book made me think about the stem cell research, cord blood, and even blood donation where you know that materials taken will be used for other things.

    How different is taking cells such as they did with Henrietta from organ donation? The donor doesn't make money from that, however surgeons, hospitals, equipment companies, etc. make money from the procedure. Most would agree that if donor's were compensated it could lead to organ farming, unethical behavior, etc. It's a fascinating issue to discuss and I am looking forward to the dialogue.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I just stumbled upon this post and your blog when searching for a reading guide for this book myself. Thank you so much for putting this together/out there! I lead a virtual book club online -- readingwithoutborders.blogspot.com -- if you're interested! I'll be following your reviews in my Google Reader now!

    ReplyDelete
  36. Thank you, the questions follow the book making it much easier for discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  37. The book club meetings about this book just keep on coming! I'm leading a discussion next week for our church book club. Thanks for the great questions. The NYT book review also provoked some interesting ideas that I am turning into questions.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Many thanks for these questions. They are excellent and so much better than the 'canned' questions written for most books.

    ReplyDelete
  39. These are great questions. I chose 4 of them for my book club's discussion this weekend. Thank you so much.

    ReplyDelete
  40. Thanks so much. I have an insanely busy day and these questions are perfect! Our book club is tonight and it would have taken me hours to come up with 1/2 of these...and probably not as well written! Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  41. Thank you for these provocative questions. I feel sure they will result in a stimulating discussion at my book club next week.

    ReplyDelete
  42. Thanks! I'm the moderator for my book club this Wednesday evening.

    ReplyDelete
  43. This book was a great journey that everyone should take. I love that the author gave life to the family of Henrietta Lacks while at the same time providing readers with details of the life of the cells. It's a must read.

    ReplyDelete
  44. Another thank you for these great discussion questions! I'm hosting our bookclub next weekend and was having a hard time finding interesting discussion questions. You saved me!! :)

    ReplyDelete
  45. Thanks so much! these questions are great!

    ReplyDelete
  46. Wow. These are great. Thanks so much

    ReplyDelete
  47. What thoughtful questions, they will really help with tomorrow night's discussion. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  48. Wonderful questions! THANK you so much for posting them! My book club is meeting next week and your thoughtful questions are going to be very helpful for our discussion.
    Neli

    ReplyDelete
  49. So glad I found these! This is our next club read! Any more you'd like to share?

    ReplyDelete
  50. yes thank you so much!

    ReplyDelete
  51. Friday, February 8, 2013 at 10 am, I am hosting my book club discussion and I am very grateful for your thoughtful questions and logic.

    ReplyDelete
  52. Who has the answers to the questions in the back of the Henrietta Lacks book??

    ReplyDelete
  53. I can only echo the gratitude expressed above. My book club members are going to think I'm a genius! ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  54. Wow, these questions are perfect! Will absolutely use for our next book club meeting...thank you for being so generous with this information!

    ReplyDelete
  55. how henretta have relieance

    ReplyDelete
  56. ............................thank you so much

    ReplyDelete