BALTIMORE — Congressman Kweisi Mfume wants to honor the late Henrietta Lacks.
A bill was filed Tuesday to posthumously award her the Congressional Gold Medal.
Lacks was 31 years old when doctors at Johns Hopkins removed some of her cancerous cells without her permission and then used them for medical research.
Lacks died in 1951 from cervical cancer at Johns Hopkin Hospital. She was 31 years old.
Lacks’ cells, labeled “HeLa cells,” were a medical revelation, reproducing at a high rate and capable of dividing numerous times without dying.
This breakthrough resulted in Ms. Lacks’ cells becoming a revolutionary medicinal tool, used to develop the polio vaccine and advance treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, hemophilia and others. In addition, her cells have contributed to breakthroughs in cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and many more functionalities.
While her cells will remain immortalized in the medical field, Ms. Lacks’ story must endure as well, for her tale is one of tremendous sacrifice amongst tragedy. It was unbeknownst to Lacks and her family, without their consent, that Henrietta’s cells were stored by the hospital. While technically allowed by law, the doctors and administrators’ actions prompted understandable privacy concerns for the Lacks family, whose genetic information was literally under the microscope for the whole world to see. Historical cases of medical exploitation against racial minorities, such as the case of Ms. Lacks as well the Tuskegee experiments, have resulted in the low enrollment in their clinical trials.
In an effort to combat this trend, the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act was signed into law last year, an effort Congressman Mfume spearheaded, which targets healthcare disparities amongst minorities by diversifying clinical trials to treat cancer. While this law honors the name of Ms. Lacks, and rightfully so, Congressman Mfume urges his colleagues to immortalize her legacy once more through a Congressional Gold Medal.
“My family applauds our Congressman Kweisi Mfume for his leadership on the introduction of the bill to posthumously award a Congressional Gold Medal to my beloved mother, Henrietta Lacks,” said Lawrence Lacks, Sr., Henrietta Lacks’ eldest son.
“While her cells will be attributed to saving countless lives, it was at the cost of Ms. Lacks’ own survival, leaving behind her husband and five children. Generations people and members of the Lacks family will now and forever hear her story once and for all, through the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal, the bill I am introducing today,” stated Congressman Kweisi Mfume.
“Ms. Lacks’ legacy sparks a complicated, yet necessary dialogue on scientific breakthrough entangled with questionable ethics against an African American woman. Her life is far deserving of celebration through the Congressional Gold Medal to encapsulate the everlasting effects started by a few microscopic cells that have transcended into conversations on race, the paradox of scientific advancement amidst sacrifice, and what it means to live forever,” said Mfume.
“This year, through our family led HELA100: The Henrietta Lacks Initiative, we commemorate 70 years since her HeLa cells changed the world. In life, my mother gave to many in our community, and today is a full-circle moment during Women’s History Month to have Henrietta Lacks’ legacy advanced by Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who grew up just blocks away from my family,” said Lacks, Sr.