Controversy Between Science and Religion in Rebecca Skloot's 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

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Religion and science are two mutually incompatible subjects with unattackable opinions. The conflict between the two ideas have been debated for many years and continues on today. These two subjects are expansive on their ideas where faith and fact come into play when persuading someone to believe. Religion and science are two controversies that are displayed in ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot, where Skloot presents the understanding of faith and fact in the Lacks family.

Religion plays a crucial role in the Lacks family. In the beginning of the book, Henrietta and her family both relied on religion, especially, when she started her battle with cervical cancer. They put their whole trust in God so that He can help out their family. “After leaving the hospital, she went back to life as usual” (Skloot 42). After being at the hospital for the first time, Henrietta went about living her usual life and going through the same day-to-day schedule. She wasn’t worried that her body would have gotten dysfunctional or too weak to even walk. Mainly because Henrietta didn’t understand what was going on inside her. She just thought she had to get a quick check-up, but she wasn’t aware that, in reality, cancer was spreading all over her. Due to her lack of education, it is easier for her to just believe that the Lord will take the wheel and help her through the pain. The Lacks’s family has always relied on Him for everything; even back then when Elsie was alive. Day and Hennirietta would take her to revival meetings so preachers in tents could lay hands on Elsie to heal her. They had full faith that God might one day have mercy on Elsie and sure her from her illness. As the days go by, we see the Lacks family carrying on the idea that God will take the wheel and guide them through their obstacles. Within the Lacks family, the idea of faith is a vital means of holding the clan together. Deborah and Gary are two members who deeply believe in Christianity. When Deborah and Skloot where at Gary’s house, him and Deborah started to pray to God for Rebecca to take the burden of her mother’s memory away from her. “Lord, I know you sent Miss Rebecca to help lift the burden of them cells…give them to her!...let her carry them” (Skloot 293). Deborah was exhausted and mostly frustrated about the whole situation about her mother. Gary and Deborah believe that God had sent Skloot so they could finally be removed from this affliction they’ve had for too long. Just like Gary said, “man brought nothing into this world and he’ll carry nothing out. Sometimes we care about stuff too much. We worry when there’s nothing to worry about” (Skloot 289). Gary assurse Deborah that all her frustration and anger will be taken away from her. It’s just a matter of faith. Another example in the book where the faith and religion understanding are used in favor of the Lacks family was when Deborah’s brother, Zakariyya, turns to Islam in prison, attempting to use faith to stay sane while behind bars. For the Lackses, faith means family. One of the climactic scenes in the book comes when Deborah’s husband at the time, Reverend James Pullum, calls the author onstage to tell his congregation about the book she’s working on. An outsider for much of the narrative, Rebecca feels momentarily accepted and included in this scene. Despite being an atheist herself, she understands the power that religion has for the Lacks family, and the deep meaning that it gives to their lives.

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Faith and religion played a dominant role in health and healing within the African-American community, specifically, the Lacks’s family. The Lacks Family depended on religion to understand that Henrietta’s cells embodied her spirit. It is difficult for the Lacks family to understand the scientific implications of how Henrietta’s cells have been used. Deborah believes that the soul is immortal due to her finding out that her mother’s cells have been crossed with those of tobacco plants and other crucial experiments. “Can you believe they even gave her that AID virus and injected her into monkey’s?' (Skloot 290). She refers to the cells as ‘her’, making this seem that she is referring to a person and not just any element. This makes her believe that her mother suffers when her cells are used for research. Because of Deborah’s profound beliefs, she comes to the conclusion that Henrietta’s cells still contain her spirit. It makes her believe that she holds a connection with her mother she has never obtained. Therefore, she wants to better understand the scientific aspect so she can connect the dots and and feel her mother closer every time. Deborah also believes that Henrietta’s spirit can still control anyone who messes with HeLa cells. It is therefore difficult for Deborah to grasp on the ideas of the investigations and experiments her mother’s cells have gone through. The rest of the family shares her distrust of science and the author. In the book, Skloot has an epiphany when she speaks with cousin Gray in Clover: the devoutly religious Lacks family has a different way of viewing Hennrietta’s death and immortality. “This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is a mortal; when raised, it will be immortal. There is, of course, a physical body, so there has to be a spiritual body” (Skloot 295). He sees her illness not as the result of rampaging cancer cells, but as something 'man-made' or 'doctor-made'. Therefore he trusts that God had a personalized purpose for her. “Henrietta was chosen, Gary whispered. “And when the Lord chooses an angle to do his work, you never know what they going to come back looking like” (Skloot 295). He is another person who believes Henrietta’s spirit lives in those cells. The only difference is that her spirit came in a new form. God chose Henrietta to do His work by saving lives. Angles are chosen by God to execute His plan. The communities in Lacks Town and Turner Station use their religious beliefs to explain Henrietta's astonishing 'transformation' into HeLa cells. “You're saying HeLa is her spiritual body?’ Gary smiled and nodded...In that moment, reading those passages, I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the mortality of Henrietta's cells makes perfect sense” (Skloot 296). For a community who lacks in education, faith really comforts them knowing that there is, after all, and explanation for all this. “Of course they were growing and surviving decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they'd let the curse for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us though” (Skloot 296). The cells become Henrietta's 'resurrection body', a chance for her to return to earth and to help humankind. The belief in the supernatural doesn't exactly contradict scientific truth. It does help the Lacks family fill gaps in knowledge so that they can build a story about Henrietta that makes sense to them. By combining bits of science with a world of faith and superstition, they compensate for the absence of usable information from the scientific community. At the same time, it comforts them and makes them feel close to Henrietta.

On the other hand, science doesn’t play a big role in the lives of the Lacks family, but it’s a crucial topic in the laboratory. At first glance, the harvesting of cancer cells from Henrietta Lacks' tumor seems like no big deal. She clearly doesn't want the cancer to remain inside her. And who wouldn't jump at the chance to help humankind simply by offering their unwanted tissues to researchers? Well, that there's the point of contention. In ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’, Skloot says that 'donating' or 'contributing' tissues implies consent on the part of patient or family. It's a basic requirement of ethical scientific research when human subjects are involved, something that we now take for granted thanks to things like the Nuremburg Code and the Helsinki Declaration. Thanks to the immortal line of cells, many medical contributions came along. The HeLa cells where an immense part of science back around the 1960’s. Outbreaks occurred during those times and doctors nor scientists could find a cure for these illnesses that spreading all over the country. With the help of the help of the immortal cells, known as HeLa cells, the scientific community was able to find a cure for a collection of outbreaks that were occurring during those times. The media knew all about the new investigations and new cures. Everyone was thrilled about the new discoveries that were made for the benefit of the country and the world around. But even though this was a monumental era, the Lackses family was way out of it. They were never informed the cells of their own mother were being used for scientific research.They knew absolutely nothing about what was going on with their mother’s cells. Science wasn’t their main priority anyway since they lacked in education. All they wanted was to understand what was going on with their mother’s cells.

Religion and science are just incompatible. Humans will be lenient more to one side than the other. The belief in the supernatural doesn't exactly contradict scientific truth. It does help the Lacks family fill gaps in knowledge so that they can build a story about Henrietta that makes sense to them. By combining bits of science with a world of faith and superstition, they compensate for the absence of usable information from the scientific community. At the same time, it comforts them and makes them feel close to Henrietta.

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Controversy Between Science and Religion in Rebecca Skloot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/controversy-between-science-and-religion-in-rebecca-skloots-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks/
“Controversy Between Science and Religion in Rebecca Skloot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/controversy-between-science-and-religion-in-rebecca-skloots-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks/
Controversy Between Science and Religion in Rebecca Skloot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/controversy-between-science-and-religion-in-rebecca-skloots-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks/> [Accessed 15 Jul. 2024].
Controversy Between Science and Religion in Rebecca Skloot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2024 Jul 15]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/controversy-between-science-and-religion-in-rebecca-skloots-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks/
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