The African American woman’s experience, it seems, has been one of despair. But why? Why does it seem as if a black woman’s pain and struggles aren’t discussed in the same manner and urgency as those of other women, or even acknowledged in many cases? Why is it that black women’s health is often seen as less palpable than others? How can such bias be addressed and changed? Has the health care system been more complicit in their bias than they are willing to admit?
Once deemed the “Father of Modern Gynecology” and a pioneer in women’s reproductive health, James Marion Sims is a man known to many as a trailblazer in modern medicine. He invented the vaginal speculum, an instrument administered during a pelvic exam, and is also credited with developing the surgical procedure to repair vesicovaginal fistula, a common condition that can occur during childbirth. However, this only came about because of numerous surgeries conducted upon the bodies of female slaves without anesthesia. In order to conduct his experiments Sims would often addict each of the patients to morphine and opium for several weeks at a time because he believed that doing so ''calmed the nerves, inspired hope and relieved the scalding of urine... and provided them with pleasant dreams.'' Although morphine did aid the recovery, it didn't alleviate the pain of the procedure itself. This understanding caused a lot of his colleagues to wonder whether addicting his patients to these drugs had more to do with controlling the women than helping their pain, since doing so took away their ability to deny the act of repeated procedures.
Although Sims can be credited with being a leading force in the world of women's reproductive health, can he be considered a savior? For me that would come down to what it means to save and to be a savior. I for one don't believe that he saved anyone; I think he furthered along the development of much needed instruments in the world of medicine but don't think he saved anyone. However, I'm sure that many will wonder why I believe such a thing. They'll say that without enacting such procedures there'd be a lot of ailing women and that as long as things were made better in order to relieve the suffering of those in the future, how he conducted these experiments is irrelevant.
However, to believe that is to say that the lives of people like Anarcha, a seventeen year old slave upon whom he conducted over 30 operations, are expendable. In the years since his prominence, Sims is no longer revered as a "hero'' in the world of medicine, with the 80 year old statue of his likeness being removed from Central Park in New York City in April 2018.
Unfortunately, even though Sims was a grave introduction into the medical treatment of African Americans he is not the only entity throughout history that has perpetuated ideas of inferiority and inadequacy, and tried to limit reproductive efforts. Another example of this was by way of contraception—a concept introduced by birth control pioneer and eugenics influencer Margaret Sanger, who went on to become the founder of Planned Parenthood. Through concepts such as the Negro Project she often exploited African American stereotypes in order to stall reproductive efforts. In an effort to increase support in the eugenics movement as it related to African Americans, Sanger enlisted the help of W.E.B Du Bois who wrote that the "the mass of ignorant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from the portion of population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear children properly.''
Aside from garnering support from scholars and speakers like Du Bois in the effort to limit reproductive efforts of those in African American community, Sanger also implemented more concrete efforts that established her legacy. She championed the development of the birth control pill, having it readily available for poor female African Americans at government-sponsored Planned Parenthood clinics. These clinics often made it a point to fit more African American women than white women with a contraceptive device called the intrauterine device. Although it was seen as effective for some women, this was not so for African American women due to the fact that they were more prone to uterine conditions such as cancer.
The one thing I wonder is why, during the rise of the IUD, was it mostly being administered to African American women? Why does it seem that IUDs were used to perpetuate the idea of inferiority? Why were African Americans so feared that these practitioners felt they needed to be erased? In the years since these medical mistreatments of African Americans, some strides have been made. For example, organizations like Planned Parenthood are now known for treating and providing assistance to those from all cultures, customs, and sexual inclinations without judgement.
There are those who believe that looking too much at the past ultimately means that you are scared of the future. However, it is my belief that without some acknowledgement of the past there is no need to ''look to the future.'' A future without foundation comes from a past without meaning.
Currently the Belmont Report contains the ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research, which has been informed by past cases like Sims or the Tuskegee Experiment and can be read about in greater detail on the US Department of Health and Human Services website.
#blackwomantwitter is a great resource for practical advice on advocating for yourself in doctors offices such as, "Asking to see your medical records to ensure that you were accurately depicted to cut down on bias" or "Demanding written refusal for a prescription, screening, or test".
Today, Planned Parenthood tries to be more inclusive to minority groups, such as with their queer and trans-friendly policies. Some locations, like in Albany and Troy also have special Teen Clinics hours to make for more comfortable environments with age-appropriate education and healthcare. Visit their website for more information.
After the passage of Alabama's Heartbeat Bill, it's become more important than ever that women's healthcare remain accesible to all, across all demographics. To that end the Yellowhammer Fund not only provides funding for its remaining clinics, but also assists other barriers to access like travel and lodging.