The cancer cells harvested without consent from Henrietta Lacks, a tobacco farmer who lay dying in the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1951, led to one of the most imporant medical breakthroughs in modern medicine. Now, a Tennessee mother is objecting to author Rebecca Skloot’s telling of that story in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, calling the bestselling book “pornographic” and seeking to have it banned from local schools.
Jackie Sims, mother to a 15-year-old sophomore at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, told the local news station WBIR she was “shocked that there was so much graphic information in the book.” She cited one passage describing Lacks’ husband’s infidelity and another concerning Lacks’ discovery of a tumor on her cervix.
“I consider the book pornographic,” Sims said, adding, “There’s so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature, and that’s the problem I have with this book.”
While her son has been provided with an alternate text according to district policy, Sims is seeking to keep Skloot’s book away from the 59,000 students in Knox County Schools because, she said, “I just feel that strongly about it being out of the hands of our children.”
Published in 2010 to favorable reviews, Immortal Life recounts how the “HeLa cells” taken from Lacks became the first human cells to survive and flourish in a laboratory, paving the way for treatments and cures for diseases including polio, cancer, and AIDS. At the same time, the book raises difficult questions about bioethics and race relations.
Addressing the controversy on Twitter, Skloot wrote, “Just in time for @BannedBooksWeek: A parent in TN confuses gynecology with pornography & tries to ban my book #HeLa.”
Watch Sims’ interview with WBIR below.
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