Wednesday, June 12, 2024

CBC introduces law to posthumously award Henrietta Lacks with Congressional Gold Medal

Congressional Black Caucus members on Capitol Hill have nominated Henrietta Lacks for a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal for her contributions to modern medicine.

“This is to commemorate and to recognize the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks,” said U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.

Henrietta Lacks
Cells taken from Henrietta Lacks, shown in the 1940s, eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments. But neither she nor her family gave consent. (Credit: John Hopkins University/Lacks Family)

“The Congressional Gold Medal is more than a symbol. It is the highest honor that we can bestow on a citizen from the U.S. Congress,” said CBC Chairman Steven Horsford, D-Nev.

“[It] has only been awarded to a few people in our nation’s history and even fewer Black people,” he explained, adding, “The CBC believes Ms. Lacks deserves this posthumous honor.”

On Wednesday, Mfume, Horsford, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump held a press conference at the U.S. Capitol to recognize the life and legacy of Lacks.

Ahead of taking to the House floor to reintroduce legislation that would award Lacks with a Congressional Gold Medal, Mfume delivered a message to other members of Congress.  

“I would urge all of my colleagues in the House and the Senate to move forward with” the passage of this statute, he told reporters.

Lacks was born in August 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, and then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband in 1941. She later developed cervical cancer and was treated at Johns Hopkins University. The treatment was ineffective, which led to her death several months later at the age of 31. 

Medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies would go on to use her cells, now known as HeLa cells, without her consent or the consent of her family to fight against cancer, HIV, Polio and other diseases.

“HeLa cells revolutionized medical research and numerous medical breakthroughs,” said Horsford. “Ms. Lacks nor her family would receive recognition or credit, nor would they be made aware of the existence or use of HeLa cells for many years after her passing.”

He continued: “In the last few years, Ms. Lacks’ story has opened conversations about ethical practices and distrust in the medical field, particularly amongst Black Americans.”

To date, Lacks’ family has not received any financial compensation, despite pharmaceutical companies making large profits from the use of her DNA.

Attorney Crump told theGrio that he and his legal team are involved in an ongoing case to seek financial justice for Lacks’ family.

Attorney Ben Crump Holds Press Conference With Family Of Jalen Randle
Attorney Ben Crump speaks alongside family members of police shooting victim Jalen Ja’Von Randle during a news conference on May 11, 2022, in Houston. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

“We’re in litigation in the federal courts in Baltimore, Maryland,” he shared. “We know that Thermo Fischer [a pharmaceutical company] is the defendant now, but we anticipate there will be more defendants, and we believe every ounce of justice that is due to Henrietta Lacks is going to take place.”

Crump said the legal case “will be unprecedented.”

Horsford told reporters that Lacks’ story is symbolic to the American people, yet very few are familiar with her story.

“Her story serves as a reminder of the need to preserve and guide our history at a time when threats of banning books and banning Black curriculum are so prevalent,” he said. 

Horsford added, “The Congressional Black Caucus members are proud to support efforts to recognize the contributions of Ms. Henrietta Lacks.”

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