Article Text

Opposed to the being of Henrietta: bioslavery, pop culture and the third life of HeLa cells
  1. Marlon Rachquel Moore
  1. Department of English, US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Professor Marlon Rachquel Moore, 107 Maryland Avenue, Stop 12A, Annapolis, MD 21402, USA; marlonRmoore{at}


Operating at the intersection of thanatopolitics and African-American cultural studies, this essay argues that the commercial sale of HeLa-themed art and other bioproducts perpetuates the bioslavery of HeLa cells, a circumstance created by legal and medical discourses tracing back to US racial slavery. Racial slavery normalised economic, social and legal inequities that the nation continues to struggle with and, the article posits, laid foundation for the dynamics that currently exist between Henrietta Lacks' genealogical family, the HeLa cell line, and the medical-pharmaceutical establishment. The author turns to fashion ethics discourse and trademark law as potential sites for reparations.

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One of the most striking aspects of reading Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is the way ‘life’ diverges for the key players in the narrative: Henrietta's descendants travel in one direction and the HeLa cell line another. Named for the African-American woman Henrietta Lacks from whose cervical cancer biopsy the cells derive, the HeLa cell line is alternately referred to as the ‘mother’ of virology and a laboratory ‘workhorse’ because they repair their own DNA; an organic durability that has and continues to facilitate medical breakthroughs and launched several fields, including human cell tissue culture and biotechnology. Or, as Skloot succinctly explains, ‘it was hardy, it was inexpensive, and it was everywhere’.1 Critical responses to Henrietta's story have rightfully focused on the question of reparations and controversial medical ethics because Henrietta was unaware of the biopsy and the Lacks family was unaware of the existence of the cell line for over 20 years after Henrietta's death in 1951. The questions debated for decades by ethicists, legal experts and other concerned intellectuals are, at bottom, about fairness: To whom do Henrietta's biological material and its derivatives belong? And, outside of the presumption of the ‘public good’ of scientific knowledge production, who is entitled to benefit from this immortality? The way these questions have been answered by the courts leaves many of us disturbed. Since I am entering this fray as a literary and cultural studies scholar instead of an attorney or legal scholar, my ponderings hereafter should be received as an invitation to further discussion.

According to case law and recent contractual agreements, the Lacks heirs are not retroactively entitled to share in the billions of dollars in profits the medical and pharmaceutical establishments have been making from their mother's cell line. That outcome is upsetting for many reasons, including how Skloot's portrayal of them reveals their perpetual economic vulnerability, varying individual health crises, and low-quality access to medical treatment. By the end of Immortal Life, Henrietta's children's circumstances stand in stark contrast to the robust biomedical economy in which HeLa is a valuable commodity. However, they have been able to secure a protocol of ‘acknowledgment’ of Henrietta in genetic research and some oversight of future and ongoing research into their family's genomic sequence.2 i Also, in the public sphere, Henrietta's memory is preserved in various ways that facilitate the interpretation of her legacy; mainly, this has been spearheaded by community organisations and state agencies, but includes the Oprah Winfrey collaboration with HBO Films that promises to be quite lucrative.ii The result is what appears to be a splitting of the celebrated ‘immortal life’ into halves: in the first half is an afterlife of memory and heritage practices whereby the social-physical body of Henrietta is eulogised through mostly not-for-profit endeavours. And in the other half is the robust evolutionary and commercial life of HeLa cells, reaping profits (for some) while advancing science. But it turns out another life exists, one that must not go unexamined.

My purpose is to introduce and offer a critique of the third life of the Henrietta-HeLa chronicle, one that involves artistic expression in various media. I aim to show how even arbiters of visual beauty and creative individuals who articulate noble intentions reflect, all too well, the entrenched legal and medical discourses that underlay and maintain the logic that unfairly splits the first two life paths. I will even go so far as to say certain art practices enact rhetorical violence against the Lacks heirs and partake in the bioslavery of HeLa cells.

Bioslavery, a common trope in science fiction narratives, was introduced into legal discourse in the 1990 California Supreme Court case Moore versus UCLA, which concerned the patent on a cell line derived from a white man's cancerous spleen. Like Henrietta, John Moore's cancer cells were developed into a commercial cell line—in contracts worth $3.5 million—without his knowledge, and he sued his physician and the hospital for damages (on grounds of theft). His legal argument was simple: humans have sovereign rights over our bodies and we are entitled to profits gained from the use of materials excised from our bodies in today's commercial age. While Moore did affect changes in hospital disclosure requirements, in the final outcome the court chose to uphold the separation between non-patentable ‘naturally occurring’ substances (blood, cells, organs, etc) and biology innovations made with them, called bio-objects. Importantly, in the majority opinion, the justices state they want to avoid ‘punishing innocent’ researchers and are unwilling to ‘destroy the economic incentive to conduct important medical research’, as patients would likely start to demand high payments and sue for retroactive patents. As we can see, even though ‘the majority view is not unmindful of the seeming injustice’, the prevailing logic nonetheless slants towards maintaining the economic status quo. Closer to the topic at hand, though, the courts also ruled against Moore on moral grounds. Citing a conflict of values, the court opines:Plaintiff has asked us to recognize and enforce a right to sell one's own body tissue for profit. He entreats us to regard the human vessel—the single most venerated and protected subject in any civilized society—as equal with the basest commercial commodity. He urges us to commingle the sacred with the profane. He asks much.4

This language refers to the slippery-slope argument presented by the defense. If we go down the path of patenting our own organs, blood and cells, the jurists claimed, future genetically engineered life forms derived from those materials could be legally enslaved.iii In this way, the rhetoric of bioslavery links the unknown future in global biotechnology to a notorious history of transatlantic human bondage.

Literary scholar Patricia Wald takes aim at how the lawyers used the spectre of racial slavery to successfully and ‘dramatically recast the dilemma’ of ownership, so the real ethical and economic concerns of the case remain obscured.5 The rhetoric, she argues, tainted a debate about stakeholders in a totally new market paradigm by equating blood donation and appendectomies with the auction block:The issue was whether John Moore had a regulatory or proprietary right to a product created from the information in his discarded cells. A patent marks the right to control access to an invented product or procedure for a specified amount of time. “Slavery” changed the terms of the debate as it established a particular historical context for the Moore case. For Moore to profit from the patent on the information contained in the Mo cell line, his cells…would have to be his “property,” but “ownership” in one's person, for some, summoned the demons of the national past, threating the “evolution of civilization.” For others, it was common sense that…if anything is truly personal, uniquely ours, its our genetic code. They were speaking in different registers: Moore's could be viewed as asking to commodify his own body part or seen as the victim of the theft… It depended on the framing of the account (p. 209).4

Since it was the commodification frame that ‘took,’ Moore's request for economic justice was deferred.iv In her lectures and other writings, Wald continues to insist that our foremost concern should be institutional racism in the delivery of healthcare and the structural violence of pro corporate market logic, instead of the sci-fi fear mongering presented here. I concur because the Moore decision, along with two other similar cases,6 indefinitely prevents Henrietta's descendants from retroactively staking a legal claim to the high-income profits companies continue to make from HeLa bio-objects.

However, while I agree with Wald that the Moore decision sidesteps the glaring inequality perpetuated by technological advancements in cellular and bimolecular processes, it occurs to me that slavery (racial and bio) cannot be totally removed from the conversation. Shifting your attention to commercial art and fashion spheres, I will propose later in this essay that HeLa, the ‘mother’ of virology, valued and manipulated for its reproductive capacities, already subsists in a state of bioslavery in spite of the preventive aims of the California Supreme Court. Central to my claim is the correlation between the logics that govern the life of the bio-object HeLa and the logics of racial slavery that ensnared Henrietta's ancestors (pp. 122–125).1

Slavery, maternity and African-American women

In a land without silver, gold, or trustworthy paper money, enslaved women's children and their children's children into perpetuity were used as human savings accounts that functioned as the basis of money and credit.7

The distinguishing condition of slavery from other forms of servitude is the conjoined mechanism of absolute control by the owner over the life and labour of another and, as Orlando Patterson evidenced, the social death of the enslaved. The first of these requisites, absolute control, is spelled out in the 1829 North Carolina case State v. Mann. John Mann, a free white person, was appealing his conviction in a lower court for criminal assault and battery for shooting an enslaved black woman, Lydia, who tried to flee while he was leasing her services on his land. The inquiry before the NC Supreme Court was whether ‘cruel and unusual punishment by the hirer is justifiable’. In other words, if you are not the legal owner of the servant, are you limited in the extent and types of punishment you can administer? The presiding Judge Ruffin rendered an opinion that was not based on whom Lydia belonged to at the time of her wounding; rather, he pontificates on why the logics of slavery do not permit him to craft distinctions between a hirer and owner—because it would also create distinctions in the enslaved person's mind and open up official space for their grievances. “In slavery”, Ruffin writes, “the end [goal] is the profit of the master, his security and the public safety”. In order for the enslaved person to “surrender his will in implicit obedience to that of another,” Ruffin continues, anyone acting in the capacity as the master, whether as owner or lessee, must have “uncontrolled authority over the body”. Therefore, under the law, the rights of the person occupying the space of master are boundless and the domination of the enslaved must be unqualified (italics added): ‘There is nothing else which can operate to produce the effect. The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect’.8 In order to maintain the racial, social, legal and economic status quo, the distribution of power must always flow in one direction. The subtext of this legal discourse, the psychological aspects of the master/slave power relation, highlights the critical role of violence in creating and maintaining slavery,9 as it also complements and collaborates with the second condition of slavery, social death.

Patterson describes social death in terms of identity and heritage, the loss of blood ties (my emphasis):Not only was the slave denied all claims on, and obligations to, his parents and living blood relations but, by extension, all such claims and obligations on his more remote ancestors and on his descendants. He was truly a genealogical isolate. … Slaves differed from other human beings in that they were not allowed freely to integrate the experience of their ancestors into their lives, to inform their understanding of social reality with the inherited meanings of their natural forebears, or to anchor the living present in any conscious community of memory (p. 5).9

With this description we see that ‘perfect’ submission collaborates with alienation through rhetorical violence; a violence produced with the symbolic instruments of law, custom and language. Social death means to be set outside of, refused access to or rendered invisible by structures that customarily cohere, define and protect kinship networks. From the master's standpoint, the captive being was ‘the ultimate human tool, as imprintable and as disposable as the master wished’(p. 7).9

Now to bring all of these points together: Although slavery was outlawed by the 13th amendment of the US constitution, legal doctrines discussed above reflect the power relation that currently exists between the medical establishment and HeLa bio-objects. To paraphrase North Carolina's Judge Ruffin, the outcome is for the profit of the master (class), its security and the safety of the status quo. So the authority over HeLa as the ultimate biotool is absolute and flows unidirectionally towards business interests and decidedly away from ‘blood ties’ with the Lackses. As I will show, an alienating rhetoric also exists within medical discourse, rhetoric that aids and compounds the genealogical isolation of HeLa.

The shadow of social death is cast by the logic of evolution. In 1992, 2 years after the Moore decision, two evolutionary biologists published separate controversial papers arguing that HeLa should be classified as its own species. One of them, Leigh Van Valen, explained in an interview that after (at the time) four decades of genetic transformation, the cells are now evolving separately from humans. “They have an extremely different ecological niche from us,” Van Valen argues. “They don't mate with humans; they probably don't even mate with human cells. They act just like a normal microbial species”.10 While this view is contested among biologists, the claim enacts a rhetorical hacking off of the Lacks family from any remaining recognisable connection to Henrietta's living biological material. There must be some realism in the interpretation of certain strains of HeLa as non-human, but the notion of total disconnection is belied by the genome sequencing agreement between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Lacks family.v Additionally, these claims did not affect the classification of HeLa as a human cell line.

Besides, if we reject outright the HeLa-Henrietta split as hollow rationale fabricated for the benefit of the elite corporate class, we can see how Henrietta is ‘denied all claims on, and obligations to her living blood relations and, by extension, all such claims and obligations to her descendants’. Through this lens, Henrietta-HeLa becomes a genealogical isolate and ironically, while HeLa is regarded as the ‘mother’ of various medical advancements, Henrietta's motherhood yields no financial benefits for her heirs. On the cellular level, then, the medical establishment subjugates Henrietta's reproductive labour so that generations (strains) of HeLa perform as breeder slaves (bio-objects) in laboratory colonies all around the world. This irony is not new, for Black women have a complicated history of maternal and reproductive rights that further links HeLa's biofuture to this country's racial past.

Historians Walter Johnson, Craig Steven Wilder, Edward Baptist and others have made clear how the wealth made from the commodification of enslaved people's labour expanded American capitalism globally. Baptist's focus is particular to the creation of now-common financial tools. He points out how in the 1830s, ‘a completely commodified slave’ could be traded on British financial markets not as ‘a particular individual who could die or run away, but a bond that was the right to a one-slave-sized slice of pie made from the income of thousands of slaves’.11 He goes on to cite how the American financial system depended on the separation of these particular labourers from the value of their labour to the extent that, by the 1850s, the 3.2 million people enslaved comprised a fifth of the nation's wealth, which was almost equal to the entire gross national product. But the wealth was not theirs to pass down (p. 352).11 When we account for biological sex, as the epigraph from American Slave Coast details, in the American antebellum period enslaved black women functioned as commerce, savings accounts and credit because their bodies were exchanged or promised as currency, and because of their potential to produce offspring. “Human reproduction was so important to the continuation of slavery,” writes Marie Schwartz in Birthing a Slave, “that members of the South's ruling class willed their heirs the unborn children of slaves as well as living people”.12 Precisely due to these economic truths, the threat of genealogical isolation hovered over every pregnancy in a commodified body.

Therefore, for the critical mass of black women, their relationship to their own reproductive capacity has always been tenuous. The main way genealogical isolation operated was through slave breeding and the auction block. Schwartz and, more recently, Gregory Smithers have demonstrated how the institution of slavery was pro-birth but generally antifamily in regard to enslaved populations. Long after slavery ended, ‘former slaves remembered the domestic slave trade as the critical structure that exploited black bodies and fragmented families’.13 Again, this exploitation and fragmentation were legally recognised and enforceable. Denied property and civil rights through various condition of the mother slave codes across the country, ‘[black] mothers passed slavery down’ (p. 3)7 because state laws guaranteed enslaved women had no more authority over their biological offspring than farm animals. Women's studies scholar Marlo David expands on how the legal doctrine constructed the enslaved woman as breeder and ‘established slavery's legal history of maternal dispossession’:The use of the word mother in this law signals a relationship that was not consistently recognized or respected at the social levels of kinship or affect, but typically only at the genetic and gestational levels of production. Enslaved women were not socially recognized as mothers, and this law, in effect, codified their reproductive value solely as breeders and wet nurses.14

The medical community is implicated with the legal statutes in this aspect of history, too, as the value placed in black women's fertility led slaveholders to consult physicians and medical manuals to achieve the goal of increasing the size of the slave population. They sought to understand fertility; the best ways to keep pregnant women from harm as labourers; and how to prevent infant mortality. Black women pushed back against the involvement of doctors in their sexual affairs with herbal strategies for regulating childbearing but were vulnerable to rape by white men, forced pairings with black male partners, and non-consensual experimentation in gynaecological surgery (pp. 227–230).12

Nothing symbolises maternal dispossession and the anti(black)family element of slavery more than the auction block. So central is it to the slave experience, the horror of the scene shows up repeatedly in 18-century and 19-century African-American biographical writings. The auction block represents ‘the rituals of exchange and consumption’15 whereby humans were greased up, paraded around, and poked and prodded for the arousal of potential buyers and traders. This traffic in human flesh is the enduring site of forced separation and ‘permanent familial rupture’.15 Recurrent in the slave narrative genre are characters embodying commodified flesh, as they describe how babies were ripped from their wailing mother's arms or young children marched unknowingly to the market. Scenes like this were intrinsic to the economics of slavery and potent reminders of the slave's powerlessness and dishonour.16 The imprint of this history is so deep in African-American collective memory that modern writers pick up where the slave narrative ends to construct fictional narratives that show its connection to contemporary modes of familial rupture. Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones and Octavia Butler are prominent examples of African-American women who take up this history of maternal dispossession in their art and represent its imprint in collective memory. The significant parallels to Henrietta-HeLa's ‘multiple symbolic shifts in the meaning of motherhood’ (p. 115),14 are so remarkable in Butler's work as to suggest the author was aware of the Lacks story. The Lilith's Brood trilogy spins a futuristic tale of forced interbreeding in exchange for species survival in a drama that forces the reader to first look back at slave breeding, then to look around at the reproductive technologies available in the 1980s and 1990 s, and finally to imagine a black woman as the progenitor of the posthuman—a presaging of the claims the evolutionary biologists make about HeLa.

All of this is to say, from a cultural studies perspective, the leap from racial to bio slavery is a short distance. Since the 17th century, US customs, laws, and sociolinguistic and medical practices have constructed a white supremacist, anti(black)family, classist norm that made it ‘reasonable’ to detach Henrietta's cellular remains from her genealogical family in a way that produces the forked ‘lives’ I discuss in the beginning of the essay. As I have shown, the court system, by refusing to patent raw human biological materials has not prevented the bioslavery of Instead, it has further enabled the norm that allows HeLa to be manipulated and procreated for economic gain without any substantive accountability to Henrietta. With that foundation laid, we can now turn to the third life of Henrietta-HeLa in popular culture. In the next section I consider the implications of selling/profiting from HeLa images in photography, clothing design and art installations. Is HeLa a slave to fashion too?

HeLa on the auction block

Even more than the whip, the auction block was a symbol of the slave's dishonor.16

A query of the search term ‘HeLa art’ results in products in nearly every category and price range on the web: paintings, art installations, coffee mug designs, photographs, graphic tee shirts and tote bags, flip-flops and phone cases. This phenomenon attests to views put forth by coauthors Svalastog and Martinelli that the meaning of HeLa as a biospecimen operates at the intersection of science, commerce and public policy and, as such, have come to ‘represent a multitude of meanings depending on context and interpretive approach’.17 Here is our context: If slave auctions were ‘symbolic reenactments of the violence of original enslavement’,16 so too is the commercial sale of HeLa-themed art. Working from the previously established premise that HeLa subsists in bioslavery for science, this discussion extends that critique into the realm of commercial art. How and for whom does HeLa labour? Is there an ethical argument to be made regarding the uses of HeLa images? For the sake of space and scope, I will limit my engagement to texts in three areas of art: photography, fashion design and museum installation.

Unsurprisingly, some of the artists who create HeLa art are also scientists who have worked closely with the cells, as medical imaging is a prolific field. Two whose names appear across numerous commercial art sites, Gopal Murti and Thomas Deerinck, have medical degrees and have had long careers in science imaging fields. Murti is the former director of Scientific Imaging in St Jude Children's Research Hospital and a retired professor of Pathology. While active in the field, he provided images of microscopic life to over 30 magazines, including New Scientist, Scientific American, Time Magazine and the BBC News health section.vii The images for sale on Fine Art America website run the spectrum of viruses and cells, from bone marrow and chromosomes, to herpes and rubella. His ‘HeLa Cell Division’ provides the spectator with an impressive still of the milliseconds-long microscopic process that makes HeLa immortal. As the green and purple cells float above a black background accompanied by the partial view of others nearby, the nearly separated nuclei are ablaze in a flare of neon yellow and green. Depending on size and finish, the pictures are valued between $25 and $600. The images for sale by Deerinck, an award-winning photographer and employee of the National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research at the University of California, are also available across multiple commercial sites. The most arresting among his pieces are the two of HeLa in the act of dying. It seems important to first address, briefly, the killing of cells made famous for their refusal to die.

In 2011, synthetic biologists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborated with Swedish scientists to develop a cell-death-inducing gene circuit in which cells are programmed to kill themselves ‘from the inside out’.18 The way it works is, the cell first recognises itself as cancerous and, then, activates genes that inverse the cell's assignment from unrelenting proliferation to a suicide mission. This major breakthrough includes built-in safeguards to kill tumours without harming healthy tissue the way chemotherapy treatments do. So this is wonderful healthcare news and, once it goes through the rigorous standards of research protocol, could change cancer survival rates drastically. Notably and for obvious reasons, they specifically targeted HeLa in their experiments. So Deerinck's images represent the promising future of oncology that may not reach human test subjects for many years. Meanwhile, magnified exponentially in the lab, HeLa dies in eye-popping detail. The grape-like globules in shades of lavender, orange, tan and pink sit in a pile atop the succumbing cell (termed ‘membrane blobbing’); some appear to be floating out of the frame. The angle allows viewers to see a small area of the recognisable HeLa that remains, as colourful tendrils splayed against the dark backdrop are reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock drip painting. The price range for these images is similar to Murti's and others’ within this theme.

So outside of its medical uses, HeLa labours in the visual arts to create profit for the producers and brokers of images that are normally used for diagnostic and educational purposes. This is how the commercial market was intended to operate, of course. Consumers purchase them for classroom use or to illustrate news stories. I imagine also, in contradiction to the emotional effect of hearing ‘you have cancer’, consumers are provided with the opportunity to have a cognitive relationship to the lethal force of nature that signifies aesthetic beauty and dread akin to hanging a picture of a raging wildfire or the eye of Hurricane Katrina on one's wall. For each category, HeLa labours oxymoronically as the symbol of deadly life or suicidal immortality.

Fashion imagery also correlates destruction and beauty. Since the 1990s, the pink ribbon has been associated with breast cancer research and fundraising. In 2002, US-based National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute spearheaded the red dress campaign to bring awareness to how cardiovascular disease impacts women's health, which culminated in the Go Red Movement. Red dresses are now the national heart disease symbol and are sold under the movement's auspices during New York's Fashion Week and exclusively at Macy's department stores. Some fashions have been inspired by the kinds of photos Murti and Deerinck create. For example, in 2014, the University of British Columbia hosted a fashion show called ‘Fashioning Cancer’, which was the result of collaboration between the arts and life sciences departments. According to the show's press release, theatre professor Jacqueline Firkins believes the traditional colour-coded approach is too subtle. She considers her cancer-inspired work a kind of intervention and critique of such disconnected fashion statements because she insists on making the disease explicit in the design.19

Rachel Wright's ‘HeLa Cell/Tree of Life’ dress (figure 1) appears to be designed with similar ambitions,viii except the ‘destruction’ half of the equation appears to drop out of the discourse. Described by the artist (also a university instructor) as hand-dyed and constructed of recycled tee shirts and foam, the skirt is fabricated as a sprawling, crawling and entwining bell-shaped combination of dark brown tree roots and turquoise HeLa cells made with intricate glass nuclei. Among the photos is one that features a person in motion (dancing?) in the dress, perhaps to capture its cancerous splendour or, more likely, to further represent the aliveness of HeLa cells. Anybody touched by HeLa, this demonstration indicates, is moved towards healing rather than death. But in the bioslavery framework, HeLa is being forced to dance on the auction block as enticement for potential buyers. The dress has been featured in several gallery exhibits since 2011 (as recently as March 2016) and appears on her commercial site, but has not been officially made available for retail or auction. The designer insures it for $10 000 though it may not be sold at that price (email 8 Aug 2016).

Figure 1

(A) Hela Cell/Tree of Life dress designed by Rachel Wright. Credit: author screenshot/Facebook. (B) Model animates the cancerous splendour of the Hela Cell/Tree of Life. Designed by Rachel Wright. Credit: author screenshot/Facebook.

For my final example, I will provide brief reports of the material and staging choices in installations created separately by artists Crystal Z Campbell and Cynthia Verspaget. Performance studies scholar Adele Senior has adequately critiqued the politics of using actual HeLa cells and Henrietta's image in installation art,20 including Verspaget's work, so my effort here is descriptive rather than analytical. Verspaget, while in residence at the University of Western Australia art and science research library, created the ‘Anarchy Cell Line’ in 2004 as ‘dialogue artifice’ through which the artist self-reflexively imbricates her biological artwork with the ongoing ethical debate about HeLa cells. Her process: she blended her own cells with HeLa in a petri dish and manipulated the resulting growth into the shape of a valentine. Meanwhile, Campbell has multiple HeLa-themed projects, including a pair of glass cubes with a laser-carved likeness of Henrietta on one and, on the other, the depiction of HeLa cells. Another involves objects, such as drawings, sculptures and diamonds, smeared with HeLa cells to symbolise the ‘link between commercial and biological value while questioning the value of forever’.21 Together these artists reflect subversive attempts to reinscribe Henrietta into the HeLa narrative but, unless they are generating income for the Lacks family, their participation in the buying and selling of the cells keeps HeLa on the auction block alongside all of the ‘low art’ on the virtual shelf.

Reparations by another name

So far, I have made the argument that artists and other pop cultural producers that use the image and term ‘HeLa cells’ for commercial gain contribute to theft, inequality and structural violence against the Lackses—even if they do so unwittingly or with subversive intentions. At the same time, I make a distinction between such routine and often systematic artistic productions, and that of Oprah Winfrey's highly anticipated, press-generating HBO biopic, and also Skloot's bestselling book and charitable foundation. I do so because Winfrey and Skloot have publicly disclosed financial agreements with members of the Lacks family.ix I built those arguments to finally assert that the HeLa cell line saga, in the reality constructed by centuries old racial logics and modern legal rulings, is a story of bioslavery different in kind but not in degree from racial slavery. Still, even within that paradigm, I want to be hopeful, to refuse pessimism as the final note of this troubling composition. Instead I extend a futurist vision of a HeLa-Henrietta afterlife that is neither dystopic nor utopic as a way to stave off those auction block blues. Let us consider whether there is a case to be made for reparations.

Since the doors to ownership in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals are locked to the Lackses, perhaps Johns Hopkins Medical Center and the NIH could cooperate with them on a copyright application for use of the phrase ‘HeLa Cells’ (to be applied solely to commercial fashion and art in the public sector) as a restorative gesture. This would, at minimum, create the space for legal scholars to debate the merits of such a proposal. As I envision it, use of the likeness of HeLa Cells and the moniker could be treated the same way other famous profitable names and images are. For example, even non-profit or not-for profit entities must apply for a licence to use the name ‘Martin Luther King, Jr.,’ the man's likeness, moving or still images, or full text of his speeches even though, as copyright attorney Jonathan Band laments, they are all so central in the history of 20th-century America.22 x I would guess the estate's awareness of Dr King's centrality and historicity is precisely why it keeps a tight rein on revenue sharing and persistently litigates unauthorised uses. Another consideration is fashion industry ethics discourse, for it makes accountability—for the seller and consumer—a central concern through standards that emphasise equitable trade, poverty reduction, animal rights and sustainability. Surely there is expandable space to address historical wrongs that have been dragged into our current biocommercial age. If either of these routes were attainable and enforceable, a revenue stream of licensing and royalty payments could sustain the Lacks heirs for generations.

As a shift towards an ending, I return to Svalastog and Martinelli, who make this persuasive observation (emphases added):Thus, as expressed with the hermeneutics terminology, they appear as a phenomenon process where new meanings and bio-realities are created. These cells disrupted the being of Henrietta Lacks [because] the life of HeLa cells is opposed to the being of Henrietta Lacks. So, the HeLa cells and not Henrietta Lacks have come to represent life.

Just as the tumour aggressively imposed its will on her organs, so, too, does the third, pop cultural life work in opposition to the social being that was Henrietta. Must it remain so opposed?


The author thanks C Riley Snorton for providing her with a model in his important work on trans necropolitics and for his generous feedback on these ideas when they were still in infancy. The author also thanks Raymond Washington Jr for listening with his medically trained ears and for his general support on this project.


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  • Twitter Follow Marlon Moore at @marlonrachquel

  • Funding US Naval Academy Research Council.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

  • i In 2013, two new policies were established between NIH and relatives of Henrietta Lacks. The first requires all NIH publications involving HeLa genome to acknowledge Henrietta.2 The second policy initiated controlled access to the genome after German scientist Lars Steinmetz and his team published the HeLa genome sequence in an open-access web database without requesting permission from the Lacks family.3

  • ii Morehouse School of Medicine has hosted an annual HeLa conference since 1995. Tuskegee University hosted one in 1999 and installed a permanent museum exhibit in 2009. From 2010–11, Johns Hopkins University established a memorial lecture series, college scholarship and community service grant in Henrietta's name. Her home state of Virginia dedicated a highway marker in 2011; and the cities of Atlanta and Baltimore each host a formal Henrietta Lacks Day. Members of the Lacks family launched a website and public speaking tour. The HBO film based on Skloot's book went into production summer 2016 with two Lacks children hired as consultants.

  • iii Actually, both sides argued that bioslavery would be the unwitting result of settling this conflict of interests, but the plaintiff claimed not owning our body parts makes us all vulnerable to unethical medical practices and lopsided economics.

  • iv In the Moore decision, the court suggests there is a legal remedy but that this was not the proper approach.

  • v See the details of NIH agreement regarding the Lacks genetic privacy in reference footnote i.

  • vi Meanwhile, the completion of the Human Genome Project has facilitated the subfield of pharmacogenomics, which also promises to be a billion-dollar development for cancer treatment. (accessed 13 Aug 2016).

  • vii Gopal Murti's biography can be found here (accessed 4 Aug 2016).

  • viii The dress is featured on Wright's commercial Toolgrrl Designs profile in a public Facebook album posted in 2011. The profile refers interested shoppers to an online shopping site. In the marketing text, Skloot's Immortal Life is usually mentioned as the source of inspiration.

  • ix See Oprah Winfrey/HBO details in footnote ii. Rebecca Skloot donates portions of her royalties to the non-profit Henrietta Lacks Foundation for the benefit of any Lacks family relative, and has stipulated that others whose family members contributed to scientific advancements without personal benefit also qualify. Details can be found at

  • x Though I am too restrained by this medium to fully draw out the potential King-Lacks parallels, Band's article offers useful insight into how the King family enables and thwarts the legacy of Dr. King with their control.

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