The news is out: [Since the country’s inception, the American medical institution has subjected Black bodies to abuse, exploitation and experimentation. Corpses being pulled from the ground for scientific study. Black women being sterilized without their knowledge and robbed of the opportunity to bear children. An entire Black community misled into believing they were immune from a fatal illness. Time and time again, Black people have been betrayed by the medical establishment, fostering a lingering, deep-rooted mistrust.
Perhaps the most notorious example of experimentation on Black bodies was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which 400 sharecroppers were denied treatment for syphilis over 40 years. In 1932, U.S. Public Health Service employees recruited hundreds of poor, uneducated African-American men with syphilis and watched them die avoidable deaths over time, even after a cure was found. The discovery of the experiment made front-page news in 1972. The study participants won a $10 million class-action settlement in 1975 and an apology from President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Black anxieties about being treated by doctors may have started in the belly of slave ships, experts say. Medical treatment aboard slave ships was based on violence and terror that was already threaded through the entire Middle Passage experience.
Most slave ships had doctors aboard. While some doctors were professional, many took a cruel approach in treating sick Africans. Ill captives could be thrown overboard and, as they were property, the merchants and owners could collect insurance money. Captives were often forced to take medication or food while being threatened by a whip, cutlass or pistol. In some cases, slaves’ jaws were pried open with torture instruments, which would break their teeth to force food down their throats, said Carolyn Roberts, a history professor at Yale.
“This was a new form of medicine where enslaved people were so dehumanized that these violations were just a normal par for the course,” Roberts said.
But misuse of medicine was only the tip of the iceberg. Some slaveholders and physicians forced Black women to participate in reproductive procedures without anesthesia. In the 1840s, a 17-year-old enslaved woman endured 30 such surgeries, according to Dr. J. Marion Sims’ biography.
In the 19th-century South, most Caesarean sections were performed on African-American women, at a time when the operation was “usually fatal for either mother or infant, and sometimes both,” Fett wrote.
These experiments on enslaved Black women “wouldn’t have been done on white women because they would have been considered too risky.”
The value of an enslaved person during their life was measured by labor and reproduction. In death, they proved instrumental in the evolution of Southern medicine.]
If this happened to white folks, it would be deemed crimes against humanity.