Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks died from cervical cancer in 1951, six years after she was photographed with her husband DavidCC

A woman in Tennessee is trying to get the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks banned from her son's high school curriculum because she considers it to be pornographic. The book in question, by Rebecca Skloot, details the life of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells led to innumerable medical breakthroughs following her death from the disease in 1951.

Jackie Sims' 15-year-old son had the book on his summer reading list for the Knox County Schools. She says the book should have come with a parental warning or permission form because of one extract in the book where Lacks discovers she feels the tumour in her cervix.

The extract from the book reads as such:

A few months after her youngest son, Joe, was born, Henrietta began to experience vaginal bleeding at the wrong time of the month. She took a hot bath, inserted a finger into her vagina, and found a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble just to the left of the opening of her womb. At this point Henrietta could no longer put off a visit to the doctor. Her husband drove her to the gynecology clinic at Johns Hopkins hospital in East Baltimore. This hospital was 20 miles from their house, a good deal further than several other hospitals in the area – but it was the only one that offered treatment to black patients like the Lackses.

Sims said the passages made her son feel uncomfortable and claims it is unsuitable for teenagers. "I was shocked that there was so much graphic information in the book," she told wbir.com."I consider the book pornographic. It could be told in a different way. There's so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature, and that's the problem I have with this book."

Unsurprisingly, there has been quite the backlash to her comments, including from Skloot herself – who spent 10 years writing the book and formed close relationships with Lacks' children and extended family to get a full account of what happened to her before and after death. Posting on her Facebook page, she wrote: "Just in time for ‪#‎BannedBooksWeek, a parent in Tennessee has confused gynaecology with pornography and is trying to get my book banned from the Knoxville high school system.

Henrietta Lacks
Cells from Henrietta Lacks have been responsible for medical breakthroughs across the world CC

"Fortunately many other local parents seem to disagree with her, as do educators throughout the US. Just yesterday, I got a letter from the head of the Science Department at Notre Dame Academy in Kentucky, a Roman Catholic High School for girls, saying: 'Our community shared experiences and had many discussions concerning the topics raised in the book. The student body and staff have learned a great deal from the story of the Lacks family, and as a token of appreciation, please accept this donation to the Henrietta Lacks (aka HeLa) foundation,' of funds raised by students and staff. I choose to focus on those stories, and I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them."

You can read the full statement here.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is a saga combining science, ethics, race and perseverance. She died from an extremely aggressive form of cancer. The doctor (George Otto Gey) treating her – who was looking at creating immortal cells – took a sample from her without her family's consent. Naming them HeLa cells, he found they kept reproducing every 24 hours and never stopped – the world's first immortal cell line.

In the decades that followed, her cells were used by research institutions around the globe. Her cells have been named in some 76,000 medical abstracts and are considered to be one of the greatest medical miracles of the last century, being used to treat illnesses like herpes, leukaemia and Parkinson's disease.

Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksPan

Yet while this was happening, her family had no idea of what had become of their mother's cells. Nor were they ever provided any compensation or payment from the billions being made by the biotech industry using her cells. However, with Skloot's help, they eventually got the recognition Lacks deserved and in 2013 won the right to have a say in how they are used. Johns Hopkins, where Lacks died at the age of 31, also now runs the Henrietta Lacks Memorial Scholarship in her honour.

Skloot said the idea her book resembles anything pornographic is ridiculous – as is the news website in question running it as a "controversy": "A few misinformed people (perhaps just one in this case) objecting to something doesn't mean it's a "controversy" ... Interestingly, not once in the story does the reporter quote the supposed 'graphic' 'pornographic' content the parent is objecting to. So I'll tell you what it is: Henrietta's husband was unfaithful, and he brought home at least one sexually transmitted disease. Also: Using her finger, Henrietta found a tumour (caused by a sexually transmitted disease) on her cervix, just as women find lumps in their breasts with their fingers. So is a breast self-exam pornography too?"

Jim Allen, vice principal of the school Sims' son attends said there are no plans to remove the book from its reading list, saying it is an "amazing book" that fits with the curriculum "better than almost any book could". Sims' son has been provided an alternative book to read – Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science.