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Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Informed Consent/Ethical Issues

American Medical Association

The following is from the American Medical Association's webpage on Informed Consent. 

Informed Consent

Informed consent is more than simply getting a patient to sign a written consent form. It is a process of communication between a patient and physician that results in the patient's authorization or agreement to undergo a specific medical intervention.

In the communications process, you, as the physician providing or performing the treatment and/or procedure (not a delegated representative), should disclose and discuss with your patient:

  • The patient's diagnosis, if known;
  • The nature and purpose of a proposed treatment or procedure;
  • The risks and benefits of a proposed treatment or procedure;
  • Alternatives (regardless of their cost or the extent to which the treatment options are covered by health insurance);
  • The risks and benefits of the alternative treatment or procedure; and
  • The risks and benefits of not receiving or undergoing a treatment or procedure.

In turn, your patient should have an opportunity to ask questions to elicit a better understanding of the treatment or procedure, so that he or she can make an informed decision to proceed or to refuse a particular course of medical intervention.

This communications process, or a variation thereof, is both an ethical obligation and a legal requirement spelled out in statutes and case law in all 50 states. (For more information about ethical obligations, see the AMA's Code of Medical Ethics, contained in the AMA PolicyFinder.) Providing the patient relevant information has long been a physician's ethical obligation, but the legal concept of informed consent itself is recent.

Articles about Informed Consent/Ethics regarding the Lacks Case

A Critical Perspective

While Rebecca Skloot has brought the story of Henrietta Lacks to the public, Skloot's position of privilege should be examined. Without it, could the book have been written?

Dr. Sam Kerstein discusses informed consent and the Lacks case

UCSD-TV: Examines Ethics Regarding the Lacks Case

UCSD-TV: Religious Scholars Discuss the Lacks Case

Indiana Public Health Training Center: Ethics and the Lacks Case

Bioethics and the Life of Henrietta Lacks

UCSD-TV: Healthcare Disparities

Dr. Sam Kerstein discusses the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment/Medical Ethics