Baltimore Rep. Kweisi Mfume Aims Again to Honor Cell-Line Pioneer Henrietta Lacks with Congressional Gold Medal

Baltimore Congressman Kweisi Mfume has reintroduced legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were used without her consent to create the first immortal human cell line. The bill, first introduced in 2021, aims to recognize Lacks’ contributions to medical research and honor her legacy.

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Henrietta Lacks and Her Legacy

Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer from Virginia who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. Without her knowledge or consent, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore doctors took a sample of her cancer cells and sent them to a lab for research. Those cells, known as the HeLa cell line, were the first human cells to be successfully grown in a lab and have been used in countless medical breakthroughs, including the polio vaccine development.

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Despite the enormous contributions of her cells to medical research, Lacks and her family were largely unknown until the publication of the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot in 2010. The book brought attention to the ethical implications of using human tissue for research without consent and sparked a wider conversation about medical ethics and the exploitation of Black bodies in medical research.

The Congressional Gold Medal

The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor the United States Congress awarded. It is awarded to individuals or groups who have significantly contributed to American culture, society, or history. Previous recipients of the medal include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa.

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If passed, the bill introduced by Congressman Mfume would award the Congressional Gold Medal to Henrietta Lacks posthumously, as she passed away in 1951. The medal would be presented to Lacks’ family in recognition of her contributions to medical research and her legacy as a pioneer in the field.

Conclusion

The reintroduction of the bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Henrietta Lacks is a significant step in recognizing the contributions of a woman whose cells have had an immeasurable impact on medical research. The bill also serves as a reminder of the ethical considerations that must be considered when using human tissue for research and the importance of informed consent. As the conversation around medical ethics continues, the legacy of Henrietta Lacks will continue to

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