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Henrietta Lacks biographer responds to parent who tried to ban it from schools for being 'pornographic'

Rebecca Skloot accuses Jackie Sims of 'confusing gynaecology with pornography'

Jess Denham
Thursday 10 September 2015 15:36
Rebecca Skloot is angry that Jackie Sims is trying to prevent students reading her book
Rebecca Skloot is angry that Jackie Sims is trying to prevent students reading her book

The writer of a Henrietta Lacks biography has hit back at a US parent who wants it banned from schools for being "pornographic".

Rebecca Skloot's book tells the story of the African-American woman whose cancer cells were removed from her body without consent as she lay in the 'coloured' ward of a hospital in 1951. The cells were used for research that led to one of modern medicine's most important breakthroughs, helping find treatments for cancer, Aids and polio.

Jackie Sims, whose 15-year-old son attends L&N Stem Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee, has complained that the biography includes "shocking graphic information" and drawn attention to a passage in which Lacks discovers a tumour on her cervix:

“With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening to her womb”.

Sims told local news station WBIR: "I consider the book pornographic. There's so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature and that's the problem I have."

Not content with her son being offered an alternate text, Sims is now intent on keeping The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks away from the school's 59,000 other students. "I feel that strongly about it being out of the hands of our children," she said.

When Skloot heard about Sims' complaint, she attacked her for "confusing gynaecology with pornography".

"I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them," she wrote on Facebook. "Because my book is many things. It's a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more. But it is not anything resembling pornography."

Skloot was reportedly contacted by Jimm Allen, assistant principal of the school, who reassured her that the teachers were in "complete support" of her book. "It's an amazing book that fits with our Stem curriculum better than almost any book could," he said. "The next book that the sophomores are reading? Fahrenheit 451. Oh sweet, sweet irony."

Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel imagines a world that burns books. There have been many attempts to ban it.

Skloot joked: "I'm in great company on the list of books people have tried to ban."

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