Grossmont debate team tackles Lacks controversy

David Hurst


David Hurst
David Hurst

GROSSMONT COLLEGE—The debate team considered the pros and cons last Tuesday, October 25, of whether the descendants of Henrietta Lacks should be compensated for her unknowing contribution of the HeLa cells to the medical community.

Advocates for the Lacks family were represented by Vanessa Spear and Bryan Hatton while Gabriella Johnson and Jake Weber provided the opposition  The debaters were assigned  their stances by their professors and argued accordingly. The debate was held in front of 100 spectators and a three- judge panel consisting of Bonnie Ripley, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology; Patrice Braswell-Burris, Ed. D., Disabled Student Services & Programs Specialist and Umoja Coordinator;  and Joel Castellaw, Professor of Communications/Speech.

The pro-side argued that the family deserves compensation for the HeLa Cell produced and taken from their relative Lacks. The opposition argued that the cells were taken years ago and while the act of taking her cells was not moral, there were no laws in place against it back in the 1950’s and no laws were actually broken.

The crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of the Lacks family but the opposition was named the winner of the debate by the three judges and backed by James Hazelwood, who explained to the advocates post debate what that should have done to strengthen their case.  Braswell was the lone judge in favor of the Lacks’ family advocates.

Each debater delivered some fine points but in the setting of the debate, facts won over emotion. Spears made the point that the act of using the Hela Cell will no longer be illegal because the family will give its official consent as a result of compensation in the form of 5% of all profits due to the use of Lacks cells.

Baker did an excellent job of countering Spears pointing out that taking the cells was not illegal in the 1950’s and that while Lacks family members are related to her, their cells are not the ones in use.

Hatton used Weber’s argument against him that distribution centers would lose revenue  by paying off the Lacks family. He suggested that without Lacks there would be no distribution centers. 

From this observer’s standpoint, Hatton seemed the best debater with is use of energy, humor, facts, and counter facts that allowed him to stand out amongst his peers. Johnson  attempted to liken body tissue to toilet tissue in that once it leaves the body it is no longer property of its owner, an argument that didn’t go over well with the pro Lacks crowd.

The issue of morality eventually fell to the issue of legality and the opposition walked out with a victory.

Hurst is managing editor of the GC Summit.  He may be contacted at [email protected]