In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” late in author Rebecca Skloot’s journey into the lives of the Lacks family, she is engaged by one of Deborah Lacks’s cousins, Gary. Filled with religious conviction and holding his Bible, he says to the author, “Those cells are Henrietta.” He opens the Bible to John 11:25 and asks her to read, “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die.”
It is a compelling moment in the text, in part because it speaks to the personal and private struggle and eventual peace that the Lacks family finds in Henrietta’s legacy. In part, though, it is compelling because it begins to address the question that nags at the back of so many readers’ minds throughout the book. What is the relationship between Henrietta Lacks — the woman who lived, married, had children, loved to dance and died young of an aggressive cervical cancer — and the HeLa cells that were drawn and cultured from her cancer? What is the relationship between the woman in the faded black and white photo who stands next to her husband, Day, in a fancy fur coat, and the blown up image of the HeLa cells we see inside the book’s cover?
Are we to see these two things as the same? Are the HeLa cells somehow, as Gary suggests, a continuation of Henrietta Lacks? Or, did what made Henrietta a person cease to exist when Henrietta died in the colored section of Johns Hopkins Hospital?
Her story asks us to consider difficult questions about what it means to be human and to be alive, even in the face of and beyond the inevitable reality of death.
In large part, these are questions about the relationship between the body and the soul — or more broadly — about the degree to which we locate the physical body as central to personhood. The answers to these questions vary tremendously across religions, cultures, and time. They are old questions, but they are also questions that inform our public discussions today.
As is evident from last month’s “stand up for religious freedom rally” here in San Diego, which protested the proposed federal mandate to dispense contraception, questions of the relationship between physical body, personal identity and the afterlife serve as important backdrop for much of our public discourse. And while many see these issues purely in terms of public health, there are many others who also see them as decidedly religious issues.