Popular culture has long provided an outlet for feelings of powerlessness toward medicine. 19th century novels Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau tapped into fears that medicine would cruelly pursue scientific knowledge at the expense of human life. Two recent films, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Get Out, examine the anxieties and mistrust that African Americans, in particular, experience toward the medical community in the modern era.
Henrietta Lacks depicts a historical breach of ethics by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, whose work obscured the identity of Ms. Lacks’ “immortal” cell line and withheld attribution both to Ms. Lacks and her family for decades. In the film, this wrong exacerbates over time as the family struggles emotionally to understand the uses of their mother’s cells and to accept their mother’s consent was never considered necessary. Indeed, the family believed that members of their community were routinely used for experimentation without their consent: they tell journalist Rebecaa Skloot that, as children, they were warned by their parents to get off the streets at night or “Hopkins people” would snatch them up.
In Get Out, a nightmarish surgical practice occurs in which a neurosurgeon and psychiatrist lure African Americans to their home for use as receptacles for white brains in a bid for white immortality. Both of these films explore the premise that African-Americans should be afraid medicine will treat them differently from white individuals.
The ugly history of abuse toward African Americans in the name of medical research was extensively documented in 2006 by the bioethicist Harriet A.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.