J. Marion Sims may have revolutionized medical care as it pertains to women’s health in the 1800s but the dubious approaches he employed begs the question as to whether a statue should be erected in his honor—that statue is currently standing outside of the New York Academy of Medicine. According to the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Sims’ history reflects a recurring theme of racism and exploitation in American healthcare and therefore needs to come down.
On August 19, several members of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), an equal rights Black youth activist group founded in 2013, staged a demonstration in protest of the Sims statue. Dressed in hospital gowns spattered with red paint, their strikingly “bloody” demonstration called attention to Sims’ practice of surgery and experimentation on three enslaved Black women whose names were Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy. Several publications (including this New York Times article and this article in the Journal of Medical Ethics) have noted how Sims operated on these women without anesthetic and nearly caused the death of one woman from septicemia when he used a sponge to wipe urine from her bladder during a procedure.
Capitalizing on the recent events in Charlottesville and the momentum building for the removal of Confederate statues and monuments, BYP100’s provocative protest garnered much attention across social media.
“Even though many of us have been calling for the removal of the J. Marion Sims statue for years, our voices (until now) largely fell on deaf ears,” explained Seshat Mack, the chair of organizing for BYP100 New York. “In New York City, we noticed many folks thinking of racist statues and memorials to white supremacists as a ‘Southern’ thing, but memorializing White supremacy is an American problem—not just a Southern one. It’s a problem we need to reckon with as a country.”
Supporters for removal of the statue include City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, but New York Mayor Bill De Blasio has said only that officials would review “symbols of hate” on city property.
On social media, the BYP100 protest has drawn a great deal of support but dissenters have also weighed in with the notion that Sims’ practices were acceptable according to the beliefs of the time and were warranted because of the affliction he was aiming to treat. During the 1800s, it was a commonly believed that African-Americans were more tolerant of and/or did not feel pain at all while Sims’ experiments were based upon the desire to cure vesicovaginal fistula.
Fistula is a dire complication of childbirth as a result of obstructed labor in which a hole develops between a woman’s bladder and her vagina and leads to sustained, continual, uncontrollable urinary incontinence. In other words, a woman with fistula constantly urinates on herself without control, suffering embarrassment and most often social rejection. Although fistula has been nearly eliminated in the U.S. and Europe since the early 20th century, it is still prevalent in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa with over one million women suffering from fistula worldwide according to Fistula Foundation.
Dissenters of the BYP100 protest have also argued that the slave women may have wanted Sims’ help and might have given consent.
Mack countered, “Without the institution of slavery, it would have been prohibitively difficult for Sims to find women willing to undergo these painful, experimental surgeries to which Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy had no choice but to assent. Ethically performing experimental surgeries requires un-coerced consent from well-informed patients who understand the risks involved.”
Americans need look no further than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tuskegee Study for an example of uninformed consent. The study involved 600 Black men with 399 of those men having syphilis. All participants were told they were being treated for “bad blood” but were instead studied for the prolonged effects of syphilis in the absence of proper treatment. The study lasted for 40 years. The women Sims’ treated were in an arguably worse predicament as they were considered property and therefore their owners considered gifting them to medical experimentation something akin to having their wagons fitted with new wagon wheels; it was more about protecting an investment than genuinely caring about these women’s health or dignity.
“Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy were enslaved women. Their ability to give un-coerced consent was stripped from by an institution that literally dehumanized them,” Mack continued. “For us to wonder, nearly 200 years later, whether these women may have consented to these procedures indicates a misunderstanding of both slavery and consent. Sims ‘purchased’ or ‘rented’ them from their owners for the purpose of medical experimentation in his backyard; this is an inherently coercive process.”
American medical education, research and industry has had a recurring theme of using, abusing and exploiting Black bodies in the name of medical advancement under the allowances of White supremacy. Among countless instances nationally, a couple of notable examples are the Medical College of Georgia’s grave robbing antics and the story of Henrietta Lacks. Racial disparities in healthcare and medical treatment persist today.
Until recently, African-Americans were the least likely (35% less likely) to receive a kidney from a living donor although they represent a third of the nearly 100,000 in need of a transplant. (Policy changes have improved these rates but Blacks still have a hard time getting on the donor list in the first place.) Despite advances in treatment and information available regarding prevention, HIV/AIDS is still disproportionately killing African-Americans at levels comparable to deaths in the early days of the disease. Medical professionals, to this day, still believe that Black people are somehow more pain tolerant. And to bring this Sims statue protest full circle, Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than White women.
“It’s a prime example of the ways Black women are underserved by our healthcare systems,” said Mack. “Incidentally, one of the reasons J. Marion Sims found so many Black slaves with vesicovaginal fistula is because they were more common in Black slave women due to poor nutrition and increased number of traumatic births. It’s so disturbing to note the parallels to our current situation. The way the medical establishment repeatedly fails Black people, and particularly Black women, is heartbreaking.”