Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Vampire Capitalism

Kenneth M. O’Brien

How do you define justice?

Was it justice for England to profit from the labor and extorted taxes of the American colonies before the American Revolution?

Was it justice for a few to benefit from the slavery of many prior to the Emancipation Proclamation?

Was it justice for the robber barons of the 19th century to profit from child labor?

There are times when you have to make it a personal story.

Is it justice for billions of dollars to be made by the worldwide pharmaceutical industry as a result of the legal exploitation of one African-American woman?

Well, that is exactly what has happened.

Loretta Pleasant was born in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920.

Over time she changed her first name to Henrietta. In 1941 she married David Lacks.

Just days after a March to end polio in 1951, Henrietta Lacks came to Johns Hopkins complaining of a “painful knot down there.”

She was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Prior to receiving treatment for the tumor, cells from the cancer were removed for research purposes without her knowledge or permission, which was standard procedure at that time.

She died on October 4, 1951 at the age of thiry-one. She was buried without a tombstone in a family cemetery in Lackstown in Halifax County, Virginia.

Why does the story of Henrietta Lacks matter?
Because billions of dollars have been made from those cells extracted from her at Johns Hopkins. As summarized on Wikipedia:

”The cells from Henrietta's tumor were given to researcher George Gey, who "discovered that [Henrietta's] cells did something they'd never seen before: They could be kept alive and grow." Before Henrietta, the cells would only survive for a few days. Gey named the sample "HeLa", after the initial letters of Henrietta Lacks' name, to protect her identity. As the first human cells that could be grown in a lab and were "immortal" (did not die after a few cell divisions), they could then be used for conducting many experiments. This represented an enormous boon to medical and biological research.

”As reporter Michael Rogers stated, the growth of HeLa by a researcher at the hospital helped answer the demands of the 10,000 who marched for a cure to polio just shortly before Lacks' death. By 1954, HeLa was being used by Jonas Salk to develop a vaccine for polio. To test Salk's new vaccine, the cells were quickly put into mass production in the first-ever cell production factory.

“Demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew. Since they were put into mass production, Henrietta's cells have been mailed to scientists around the globe for ‘research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits’. HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells....
“Doctors still have not discovered the reason for HeLa cells' unique vigor, but suspect that it is due to altered telomerase function. There are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.”

A donation was eventually made to purchase a headstone for her grave. A few modest tributes were held to honor her contribution to medical science. To this day, however, most of her descendants cannot afford medical insurance.

On May 18, 2010 NBC aired an episode of Law And Order titled “The Immortal” that dramatized a fictional version of the case of Henrietta Lacks.

Rebecca Skloot has written a book titled “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” that provides a compelling narrative of this slice of American history.


What bearing does this story have on issues that are being confronted in today’s hyper-inflammatory political environment?

Because, in the midst of this we have lost sight of the fundamental premise upon which this country is based.


It is not state’s rights.

It is not an economic system.

It is not a religious ideology.

The Constitution of the United States begins with the words, “We the people…”.

The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self evident…”.


It is the “We” that has been lost sight of.

While we supposedly believe that all are created equal, we must realistically realize that not all are endowed with equal gifts. A John Boehner, the son of a bar owner, could never rise to be Speaker of the House in a stratified society. A Bill Clinton, son of a broken home, could never have risen to be President.

But, we are moving inexorably toward defining opportunity based upon current economic status.

We expand the opportunity for all Americans when we realize that we are not wise enough to decide where the next great scientific mind will come from. We expand the opprtunity for all Americans when we realize that, more often than not, the greatest business advances come from those most economically challenged. And, as in the case of Henrietta Lack, we expand the opportunity for all Americans when the least of us provide an unexpected contribution to the public welfare.


But there is no idea of “WE” anymore. It is all about us and them. And the lines are drawn on two fronts. They are drawn along an economic front that extols an unconstrained capitalism that once benefitted from colonialism, once benefitted from slavery, once benefitted from child labor, and that still benefits from the legal necrophilial exploitation of the body of Henrietta Lacks.

On the other front there are those who virulently proclaim that America is a Christian nation. But they extol a distorted vision of Christianity that conveniently forgets the words of Matthew 25:45
'In solemn truth I tell you that in so far as you withheld such services from one of the humblest of these, you withheld them from me.” (Weymouth New Testament)

Until those who are so violently partisan in defending the welfare of the unborn devote at least an equal portion of their time to defending and protecting the welfare of the living, whatever their economic status, until those who seek public office stop making promises that they know that they cannot keep, and until those who claim to be journalists stop distorting facts to sway public opinion to conform to the views of their corporate sponsors, don’t tell me you are the inheritors of the Founding Fathers.


Until you awaken to the pernicious fact that we recognize that bloodless corporations whose sole purpose is to maximize profits have been granted the same status as “persons” under the law, all people will be second class citizens. Not second class to some abstract, mythological threat of socialism, but to the reality that once again, “We the people” are subject to dominance by financial power. This was recently reinforced by the infamous Citizens United case before the Supreme Court.

One can only wonder if Henrietta Lacks would think if she were included in “We the people” if she were still alive?

When does the acceptance of one sacrificial lamb pave the path to a holocaust, all in the name of profit?



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