Reproductive ‘experiments’January 24, 2007 at 10:17 am | Posted in assholes, blogging for choice, the forg | 3 Comments
There’s an interview in Democracy Now! with medical writer and editor Harriet Washington, who has written a book called Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. In the interview she directly addresses some of the issues I mentioned in my second Blogging for Choice post the other day, albeit in a very general manner. Washington provides specific examples on everything from medical experimentation’s roots in slavery, to more recent experiments on black people, people living in poverty and on prisoners (who are more likely to be black or another minority). It’s very disturbing, but, I would argue, necessary reading. Below are excerpts from the interview specifically discussing reproductive ‘experiments’ conducted on African Americans. (All quotes are from Harriet Washington unless otherwise stated.)
First of all, it’s important to understand that there was a scientific animus called “scientific racism,” which at that time was simply science, and it posited that black people were very, very different from whites, medically and biologically. And this provided a rationale and an underpinning not only for the institution of slavery — slavery probably could not have persisted if there hadn’t been this medical underpinning — but also for the use of blacks in research.
For example, …it said that blacks were less intelligent, sub-human, perhaps not even quite human, that they didn’t experience pain, that they were immune to diseases like malaria and heat sickness that made it impossible for whites to work in the field, but made them perfect for labor in the field. So this set of beliefs, this set of scientific beliefs, was not buttressed by any real data, but only by the needs of the community. And this actually gave permission for doctors to acquire slaves for research.
They also had a variety of conditions for which — a good example is reproductive health. All of the early important reproductive health advances were devised by perfecting experiment on black women. Why? Because white women could say no. White women were not interested in having doctors looking at their genitalia during the Victorian era, and white women were not interested in undergoing painful surgery without anesthesia, but black women could not say no.
James Marion Sims was a very important surgeon from Alabama, and all of his medical experimentation took place with slaves. He took the skulls of young children, young black children — only black children — and he opened their heads and moved around the bones of the skull to see what would happen, posited as a cure for disease, but there was no rationale for that. He also decided to remove the jawbone of a slave, but this slave was pretty intractable. He did not want the surgery. He loudly protested against it. And in response, Dr. Sims had him tied to a barber’s chair and held immobile, while he operated on him without anesthesia.
But he’s most infamous for his reproductive experiments with black women. He bought, or otherwise acquired, a group of black women who he housed in a laboratory, and over the period of five years and approximately forty surgeries on one slave alone, he sought to cure a devastating complication of childbirth called vesicovaginal fistula. This cure entailed repeatedly doing incisions on their genitalia, very painful and, you know, very emotionally difficult, as you can imagine. And in the end, he claims to have cured one of them.
And after this, he went north, where his medical fortune was made. He became the toast of Second Empire Paris when he went there to be the personal physician of Princess Eugenie. And when he returned to New York, he was elected the president of the American Medical Association.
I think this is really important, because although often you speak of surgeons and doctors who do nonconsensual experimentation, and we think of these Frankensteinian characters, but the reality is these have tended to be overachieving adepts who were stellar physicians. They were well-revered, well-respected within their profession in their time, and people only knew of their work through their own bowdlerized versions of it. They wrote up these accounts in medical journals, but they never characterized them as abusive experimentation, because it was accepted for them that you operated on slaves who couldn’t say no.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What about the issue of sterilization? I know — obviously in Puerto Rico throughout the 1940s and ’50s, there was a massive sterilization campaign. But what about the sterilization of African American women?
HARRIET WASHINGTON: Oh, it’s very troublesome. African Americans have been more likely to be sterilized during the eugenics period, but even more recently, African American women constitute 85% of the women who are forced to undergo a Norplant implantation for abusing their children.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Norplant is.
HARRIET WASHINGTON: Norplant is a contraceptive, no longer on the market, but it’s implanted in the woman’s arm, and it confers sterility for five years, at least. All kinds of medical problems resulted, though, you know, from depression to weight gain to physical problems, and it was taken from the market eventually.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was experimented on with it?
HARRIET WASHINGTON: Oh, black women, black girls in the Baltimore school system. Baltimore is 82% black, so these girls were also like 95% black.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they understand that they were part of an experiment?
HARRIET WASHINGTON: No. It wasn’t presented as an experiment. It was presented as, as the Philadelphia Inquirer said, a way to reduce the underclass, a solution to the teenage pregnancy problem. But it’s very short-sighted. Teenage pregnancy has its roots in, you know, a wide variety of medical and social issues, and an implanted capsule is not going to cure it.