All Articles Tagged "henrietta lacks"
The story of Henrietta Lacks is all too real for a group of black women in North Carolina who have come forward to speak about being involuntarily sterilized in the state over the course of 50 years. While the circumstances of the cases are different—Lacks’ cells were taken from her without her knowledge, while the women in North Carolina were stripped of their reproductive rights—all women were victims of science using black women’s bodies for undisclosed and exploitative purposes.
The group of black women in North Carolina who were victims of forced sterilization were tragically impacted by the eugenics movement, a “scientific” approach to population control that has thankfully since been discredited. The application of eugenics theory sought to eliminate the societal ills of poverty, promiscuity, and alcoholism that were thought to be inherited by sterilizing those with such traits to improve society’s gene pool.
The movement grew in popularity during the 1920s, but was still quite active in North Carolina until 1974. One of the victims who has come forward, Elaine Riddick, was just 13 years old when she became pregnant after a neighbor raped her. After giving birth, the state ordered that she be sterilized and doctors cut and tied off her fallopian tubes, preventing her from having any more children. Even though she was just a child, they deemed her mentally feeble and made a permanent change to her body that altered her entire life. To make matters worse, Riddick wasn’t even aware of what was done to her. It wasn’t until she was 19 and married that she found out she was incapable of having children.
Sadly, as the television news program Rock Center points out, North Carolina was one of 31 states to have a government run eugenics program and by the 1960s, tens of thousands of Americans were sterilized as a result of these programs. What began as a way to control welfare spending on poor white women and men, eventually shifted to targeting more women and more blacks than whites. And Planned Parenthood was famously started as part of this movement, which opened one of its first offices in Harlem. (Planned Parenthood has since abandoned this motivating philosophy.)
In 2002, the state of North Carolina issued an apology to victims of eugenics -related crimes, and a task force was created in 2003 to determine appropriate compensation for the individuals harmed. Figure estimates range from $20,000 to $50,000 each being promised to the approximately 2,000 victims who are still alive — yet eight years later, none of these women has received a dime.
Regardless, can you ever truly put a price on the emotional and physical scars these women have endured? Not being able to conceive, being physically mutilated and “butchered” — the term Elaine Riddick said the doctor used to describe what happened to her when she discovered her mutilation years later.
“I was raped by a perpetrator [who was never charged] and then I was raped by the state of North Carolina,” she said. “They took something from me both times.”
Riddick went on to painfully relate, “The state of North Carolina, they took something so dearly from me, something that was God given.”
Hearing this woman’s story and knowing how many others experienced the same wrong truly makes me think twice about Herman Cain’s charge of “planned genocide” perpetrated by Planned Parenthood. Yes, the organization has changed its stripes. But, to think that such a procedure as what happened to Riddick and thousands of others was commonplace merely 35 years ago is truly disturbing.
It makes you question just how far we have come over the years as a society. It also speaks to how far the medical community still has to go in terms of earning black women’s trust.
Were you aware of the involuntary sterilization that went on in North Carolina and other states from the 1920s to the early 1970s? Can these women ever be properly compensated for what was done to them?
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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In 1951, an African American tobacco farmer and mother of five named Henrietta Lacks admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital after complaining of a knot in her cervix. During treatment, Lacks’ cells were taken without her knowledge so that they could be studied. Scientists had been struggling for years to grow cells but normally, the cells died, but Lacks’ cells never did. The rest, as they say, is history.
Henrietta Lacks was black and so is President Barack Obama. But power has no color, and it would be dangerously gullible of us to assume that just because Lacks was black and Obama is black, or because you are black and Obama is black, that there is less of a need for us to question authority.
Yvette Carnell is a former Capitol Hill Staffer turned political blogger. She currently publishes two blogs, Spatterblog.com and BreakingBrown.com.
By Ezinne Adibe
The relationship that the African continent has had with the Western world has been one governed by an asymmetrical power dynamic for at least 200 years now. Africa and its descendents, particularly those considered black, often receive the short end of the stick. Not only have there been problems with people from other countries entering the continent with the intent to colonize, but there have also been problems concerning internal conflict that is based on European ideas.
When one thinks of colonialism, one usually thinks of the forceful subjugation of people through violence. The idea that the collection of human genetic material, specifically from continental Africans, as well as their descendants in South, Central and North America, could be considered an extension of a colonial history and practice is something that many human rights and African-centered groups have yet to explore extensively.
According to physician and biological anthropologist Dr. Shomarka Keita, who is affiliated with Howard University and the Smithsonian Institute, “the control of people’s bodies, their minds and ideas was a part of the whole colonization process,” he said. “We should not forget that some Africans were put on display in museums, as in New York. People were treated as specimens.”
Keita went on to explain that Asians and Native Americans criticized the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) in the early 1990s. These groups were against the collection of their DNA on the grounds that they were disappearing. One of the points of contention was that if these scientists were truly ethical and concerned, they would help them survive and worry about collecting their DNA later. “These people were basically saying that they didn’t want to be memorialized in a laboratory,” said Keita.
Even so, African nations, scientific bodies and individuals do not seem to have resisted having their DNA used for “diversity studies,” as evidenced by the scientific literature. Interestingly, there are almost never any African names on these papers.
The Ethics of Curiosity & Informed Consent
The extraction of DNA information from Africa is often done without truly informed consent, according to Keita. “People are not taking into account that it was Western science that was also responsible for many of the negative stereotypes and exploitation of African people,” he said. “When consent is obtained, people are not reminded of this exploitation.”
Like many forgotten heroes of the past, Henrietta Lacks finally got a headstone this past weekend. The southern tobacco farmer and cancer victim, who died 60 years ago, is credited to have cells (taken without her knowledge) that scientists used to developed the modern polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping.