(Washington, D.C.) — Multi-billion-dollar biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific (TFS) has wrongfully profited from cervical cells that were taken from Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge and consent, according to an amicus brief filed Tuesday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the National Health Law Program, and the National Women’s Law Center.
In 1951, while seeking treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, a doctor cut out tissue from Henrietta Lacks’s cervix for their research purposes without her knowledge or consent, while she was unconscious and under anesthesia. Those cells (HeLa cells) were used for a multitude of medical advancements without any compensation for Mrs. Lacks or her family.
The groups argue that TFS’s enrichment from HeLa cells is unjust because it was made possible by historical, systemic discrimination that includes widespread, nonconsensual and nontherapeutic medical experimentation on Black people and other systemically marginalized communities dating back to slavery. The brief was filed in the U.S. District Court of Maryland, Northern Division.
“Decades after her death, Henrietta Lacks and her family continue to be exploited by a system enriched off of her stolen cells, said Pilar Whitaker, counsel with the Economic Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This case is an egregious example of racial and economic exploitation by medical industry.”
In The Estate of Henrietta Lacks v. Thermo Fischer Scientific, the plaintiff argues that the medical community has historically perpetrated heinous medical injustices on nonconsenting, often unaware patients. Because TFS is a direct beneficiary of those past wrongs, principles of justice and fairness enshrined in Maryland law require the Estate to be compensated for the use of Mrs. Lacks’ cells.
TFS’s enrichment from HeLa cells cannot be divorced from the racial and class-based discrimination which allowed the medical research community to disregard medical consent principles and laws with respect to systemically marginalized people for centuries. The seizure, experimentation, and commercialization of Mrs. Lacks’s cervical cells are intertwined with an age-old practice of medical exploitation of people, who are disproportionately poor, Black, and Indigenous.
Read the amicus brief here.
About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes. For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommittee.org.