04-12-2024  7:54 am   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Attorney Ben Crump is interviewed by Lewis & Clark law professor Robert Klonoff. The two worked together to represent the family of Henrietta Lacks.  Via Lewis & Clark College, permission to use.
Saundra Sorenson
Published: 29 February 2024

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump has represented the families of some of the most high-profile and egregious cases of police brutality, including those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. 

Crump appeared at Lewis and Clark College last week to deliver the Martin Luther King Jr. Endowed Lecture, and to receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in recognition for his work in civil rights. The lecture is endowed by Jacqueline Alexander ‘07 and Leodis Matthews ‘73.

In his lecture, Crump focused on one of the more logistically challenging civil suits he’s brought: the case of Henrietta Lacks. 

Attorney Ben Crump receives an honorary doctorate from Lewis and Clark College. (Photo by Paloma Ayala)

The event was a reunion of sorts, as Lewis and Clark law professor and former law school dean Robert Klonoff joined Crump onstage to interview him. Klonoff, whom Crump referred to as “one of the most brilliant legal minds in the world,” has worked as co-counsel on the Lacks case. 

Henrietta Lacks

Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. She had gone to Johns Hopkins University for treatment, but died in excruciating pain after what Crump and others argue was insufficient treatment. Lacks was Black, and during one of her visits to Johns Hopkins, doctors removed samples of her tissue – both healthy and cancerous – without her knowledge or consent, in an invasive procedure. Some of these cells continued to regenerate in a lab setting at a rate of once every 24 hours, and to live far longer outside the body than previous samples had. That cellular lineage continues to this day: Lacks's cells are now known as the HeLa immortal cell line, and have been used in the research and treatment of polio, cancer, AIDS and numerous other diseases.

“She was a victim of medical racism, and medical racism was nothing new during that era of the 1950s,” Crump said.

“In fact, when Professor Klonoff and I were doing research for bringing a case, older Black people told us when they were little children, they were warned by their parents that you don’t get caught outside of Johns Hopkins University Hospital at night, because they will snatch you up.”

For decades the Lacks family was unaware of Henrietta’s nonconsensual contribution and the impact it made to the medical field – nor did they receive any compensation for the use of her genetic material. They only became aware of the HeLa line in 1975. 

“They still didn’t really believe it until they published it in Jet Magazine,” Crump said. 

Attorney Ben Crump delivers the Martin Luther King Jr. Endowed Lecture at Lewis & Clark College last week. (Photo by Paloma Ayala)
In 2021, Lacks’ only surviving son, Lawrence, approached Crump about pursuing some measure of justice in court. 

“Pharmaceutical companies have made billions upon billions upon billions of dollars from her HeLa cells that regenerate every 24 hours,” Crump said. “In fact, every medicine, every vaccine, every advancement in medical research in the last 60 years has been as a result of Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells, because now scientists and doctors could experiment with human cells under microscope outside the human body.”

Meanwhile, Crump said, Lacks’ last surviving child was struggling with serious health issues of his own. 

“It’s so tragic,” Crump said. “You think about Henrietta Lacks’ cells helping out everybody else’s families all over the world, yet her son couldn’t even afford quality healthcare. You would’ve thought Johns Hopkins hospital would’ve given him lifetime medical care expenses for what her cells lived to help give them: academic prominence.”

Pharmaceutical companies continue to profit

Johns Hopkins has maintained it never profited from distributing the HeLa cell line to labs and researchers worldwide. However, Crump points out the institution has directly benefited from Lacks’ sample by gaining prestige and numerous grants as a result. 

And many pharmaceutical companies continue to profit as a result of their access to the HeLa line. 

It was a difficult case to try, Crump said. It was not illegal at the time to collect samples without patients’ knowledge. There was no legal precedent for how to make a family whole after their mother had been mistreated and her genetic material profited from long after her death. 

Crump praised Klonoff for helping him build a case around the theory of unjust enrichment. 

“It is a well established legal principle that people who commit wrongdoing cannot continue to benefit from the wrongdoing, and so that was our argument,” Crump said. 

He described staying up all night with Klonoff to prepare for their lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific. When the opposition argued the case was far outside any legal statute of limitations, Crump responded by detailing how unprecedented the case, and Henrietta Lacks herself, was. He acknowledged they could not ask for seventy years’ worth of compensation. 

But Lacks’ cells continue to regenerate and contribute to the profits of the pharmaceutical company, Crump pointed out. And for that, the family expected compensation. 

It's a question of dignity

The opposing counsel warned that allowing the case to proceed would set a precedent that would allow the family to continue to sue the company in years to come. Crump detailed his response:

“The question is what if, in 1951, what if the doctors from Johns Hopkins treated Henrietta Lacks with dignity?

"What if, in 1951, they treated this Black woman with respect?...What opposing counsel is asking is what if, in 1951, they would’ve treated her like a White woman? And they would have asked for her consent, they would have expressed to her family that they were going to experiment on her…And then if they were to get any benefit or value from the experiment on her tissue, they’d then have to go back to her family and get permission to use her genetic materials? Because had they done that, I don’t think we’d be here. This isn’t the first time that people have had intellectual properties that they have given the world.”

He likened the Lacks’ claim to Henry Ford’s descendents continuing to benefit from Ford’s intellectual property, and to cosmetics giant Mary Kay Ash’s descendants receiving Mary Kay profits. 

“And so with Henrietta Lacks, we’re not just talking about intellectual property that she gave the world – she actually gave of herself,” Crump said in recounting his argument.

“This is her genetic material. So why is it that when it’s a Black family coming in this courtroom, why is it an issue that they would get to receive compensation in perpetuity for the contributions of their mother or father?”

”It was so quiet in the courtroom,” Crump told the lecture attendees. Klonoff agreed, and recalled thinking at the time that he would not want to be on the opposing counsel in that moment. 

In August, the Lacks family settled with Thermo Fisher Scientific for an undisclosed amount. Lawrence Lacks died later that month. 

“Mr. Lack had said, ‘No matter what happens, we’re finally in a courtroom.’ He was 76 years old, his mother died when he was 14, and for his whole life he’d been trying to get some justice for Henrietta Lacks.”

The family immediately filed a suit against Ultragenyx Pharmaceutical, in a continuing effort to hold companies accountable for profiting off Lacks’ stolen cells. 

Crump is also the author of Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People, published in 2019. 

Klonoff asked Crump how he came to be a civil rights attorney, and Crump recalled being bused to attend the White middle school. Socially, it was a very positive experience, Crump said, adding he met many lifelong friends there.  

“I learned that racism is not an organic dynamic,” Crump said. “It is a learned experience.”

Recently Published by The Skanner News

  • Default
  • Title
  • Date
  • Random

The Skanner Foundation's 38th Annual MLK Breakfast