A Tennessee woman is claiming that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a biography of a black woman whose cervical cancer cells were taken without her consent and used for medical research (a book available in nearly every airport), is “pornographic.” Jackie Sims says her 15-year-old son shouldn’t have been assigned the book, and, for good measure, that it should be banned from her local school district.
Earlier this week, Sims told Knoxville’s WBIR-TV that Henrietta Lacks, written by Rebecca Skloot, shouldn’t have appeared on her son’s summer reading list, because it makes reference to the fact that women often have cervixes and even vaginas. From WBIR:
“I was shocked that there was so much graphic information in the book,” Sims said.
What Sims read appalled her, she said, citing a passage that describes infidelity and another that describes Lacks’ intimate discovery that she has a lump on her cervix.
“I consider the book pornographic,” she said, adding it’s the wording that bothers her most.
“It could be told in a different way,” she said. “There’s so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature, and that’s the problem I have with this book.
One might argue that the truly appalling thing in the book is that neither Lacks nor her family ever gave consent for her cells to be used. Long after she died of cervical cancer in 1951, the entire medical establishment made both enormous scientific gains and enormous financial ones from her body.
It’s a knotty ethical dilemma, and one that most 10th grade students are probably well-prepared to consider. From a 2010 New York Times review of the book:
Skloot traces the family’s emotional ordeal, the changing ethics and law around tissue collections, and the inadvertently careless journalists and researchers who violated the family’s privacy by publishing everything from Henrietta’s medical records to the family’s genetic information. She tacks between the perspective of the scientists and the family evenly and fairly, arriving at a paradox described by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. “Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! . . . But I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”
But yes, the book also says that Lacks discovered her cancer by putting a finger in her vagina, and that her husband brought home at least one STD. That kind of imagery is obviously far too shocking for a teenager to contemplate, particularly one who attends—wait for it—L&N STEM Academy, a science-and-math oriented high school.
Sims’ son was given an alternate text to read, at her request, but she’s now pushing to have the book banned outright from Knox County Schools.
In the meantime, Henrietta Lacks’ author Rebecca Skloot responded to the controversy on Facebook, saying that Sims has “confused gynecology with pornography.” She was also unimpressed with how WBIR covered the story:
Also ... This news station? A few misinformed people (perhaps just one in this case) objecting to something doesn’t mean it’s a “controversy” trend story that warrants 6:00 news placement. Interestingly, not once in the story does the reporter quote the supposed “graphic” “pornographic” content the parent is objecting to. So I’ll tell you what it is: Henrietta’s husband was unfaithful, and he brought home at least one sexually transmitted disease. Also: Using her finger, Henrietta found a tumor (caused by a sexually transmitted disease) on her cervix, just as women find lumps in their breasts with their fingers. So is a breast self-exam pornography too? #sigh
Sims doesn’t seem to have a lot of support: Skloot notes in an update to her post that she received a comment from Jimm Allen, L&N’s vice-principal.
“Know that the book and teachers have the complete support from the administration of the school,” Allen wrote. “It’s an amazing book that fits with our STEM curriculum better than almost any book could! The next book that the sophomores are reading? Fahrenheit 451... Oh, sweet, sweet, irony.”
Correction: An earlier version of this headline incorrectly referred to “stem” cells, when in fact the cells of Lacks’ that were studied were cervical cancer cells. I regret the error.
Jackie Sims. Screengrab via WBIR TV