Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sacrifices in the Advancement of Public Health

I have been reading Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I've copied a summary of the book below from the author's website. I could not eloquently explain the complex and intricate plot that Ms. Skloot delivers to us with great skill: 

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years.

We take for granted the remarkable events that had to occur for us to be able to live healthy lives in environments that do not threaten our existence. We are able to walk down clean streets that are not swamped in sewage and garbage. If we catch a cold or have a headache, we can pop into our local drugstores for a few pills to ease our symptoms until our immune systems can battle the foreign invaders and return us to health. 


But, there are faces and life stories behind the scientific discoveries that have made advances in our health and medical knowledge and allowed our lives to be cleaner and healthier. Henrietta Lacks' illness and the resulting events that unfurled are unfortunate for her and for her family. However, the ordeal that she and her family experienced is not the first intersection of public health and sexual politics. Ms. Lacks was one of many women who suffered because she was a woman in a patriarchal society and who sacrificed more than just her cells for the good of public health

The Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts were first passed in 1864, amended in 1866, 1868, and 1869, and ultimately repealed in 1886. These parliamentary acts were an attempt to regulate prostitution in British garrison towns so as to control the spread of venereal diseases, referred to as "contagious diseases" at the time. With these acts, British law enshrined the belief and practice that women were a source of contamination. 

The CD Acts defined any woman detained by the police within an area of garrison towns as a common prostitute, regardless if they were innocent mothers, sisters, or daughters of a garrisoned man. Any woman arrested was charged as a prostitute and was forced to comply and undergo a horrific and intrusive medical examination. If she refused, she was imprisoned. 

Though the CD Acts meant to contain the spread of venereal disease for very serious and vital public health reasons, they instead created a crime by their observance. Whether the women victimized by these laws were in fact prostitutes or were innocent, women were targeted and persecuted because they were women.  No attempt was made to regulate the spread of disease by penalizing the men who paid for sex. The working-class women who performed this kind of work as a result of economic circumstances were "fallen women" whose sins were greater than the man's. 

The abuses caused by the CD Acts and the debates that resulted and ultimately led to their repeal were powerful catalysts for the Women's Movement. 

The Victorians by A.N. Wilson


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