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Medical Apartheid in America

“There isn’t a better candidate for torture than a person who isn’t really considered a person.”

The name Josef Mengele is so infamous that it needs no introduction. Mengele was the German doctor who performed medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp. An American doctor, James Marion Sims was equally monstrous, but his name is less well known.

Sims was a doctor who routinely performed unnecessary and sadistic surgeries on slaves in Alabama. He opened the skulls of babies and performed gynecological surgeries on women. They were forced to endure unimaginable treatments, all without the ether that had by then become available as an anesthetic. Of course, being enslaved people, they had no choice in any decisions that Sims made about their bodies or their lives.

Sims allegedly sought to treat vaginal fistulas caused by complications of child birth. One woman underwent this treatment, without anesthesia, 30 times. He obviously didn’t cure her of anything.

Because Sims’ victims were black Americans their stories remained largely untold. They were not the first or the last black Americans to be subjected to what can only be called torture in the name of scientific investigation. Sims is called “the father of gynecology” and eventually became president of the American Medical Association. He has been immortalized in a monument that still stands in New York’s Central Park.

“Sims’ victims were not the first or the last black Americans to be subjected to what can only be called torture in the name of scientific investigation.”

Of course, there has been a memorial to the Jewish Holocaust on the Washington Mall for more than ten years. There is still no monument to American slaves who built all of the capitol monuments. Sadistic torture can be condemned as long as it didn’t happen here.

A newly published book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, is a comprehensive chronicle of surgeries performed without anesthesia, the notorious Tuskegee experiments that prevented 400 men from being treated for syphilis over a 40 year period, and forced sterilizations.

Harriet Washington, the author of Medical Apartheid, has performed an invaluable service. White Americans love to point fingers at Germans who won’t apologize for Hitler, or Japanese who claim that the rape of Nanking didn’t take place. There is little interest in acknowledging, much less apologizing for atrocities that took place on American soil.

History tells us that torture and murder are considered acceptable if the perpetrators are white and the victims aren’t. The population of American Indians was decimated from an estimated 15 million before European occupation to 200,000 in 1890. Simply put, they were murdered. They were shot and scalped and infected with disease. Millions of Africans taken into slavery in Africa perished before reaching the western hemisphere where they faced the prospect of being the property of Dr. Sims and his ilk.

The litany of atrocities documented in Medical Apartheid shocks the soul and the senses. Yet it must be pointed out that those atrocities are all logical results of the white supremacy that was manifested in chattel slavery, and the terror that followed it. There isn’t a better candidate for torture than a person who isn’t really considered a person.

It is indeed valuable that some of the most racist crimes committed in this country have finally been exposed. But it will be of little use if this history is dismissed as vestiges of another time instead of revealing an ideology that has never disappeared from the American consciousness. The use of black Americans as guinea pigs didn’t end with the slavery era and wasn’t confined to the South.

“It is unclear if the children died because of the effects of HIV or from side effects of the medications they were given.”

The same sickness that permitted slaves to be the subject of cruel experiments puts foster children in the same danger. From 1988 to 2001, 465 children in New York City’s foster care system were subjected to experiments with AZT and other toxic HIV drugs.

The state acting in loco parentis, gave itself permission to test drugs on children as young as six months of age. Fifteen percent of the children died, but it is unclear if they died because of the effects of HIV or from side effects of the medications they were given.

Again in New York City in the 1990s, 100 boys, all African American or Latino who were diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, were used to test the now banned drug fenfluramine. They were chosen because they all had older brothers in the juvenile justice system. The tests were conducted to detect biological markers for “anti-social” behavior. It is a question never posed about white people, who are capable of being quite anti-social.

If New York at the end of the 20th century offered the same treatment as Alabama in the 19th century, then white supremacist ideology, and medical apartheid, are alive and well. We can add health care to the long list of items that are ordinarily beneficial but may not be for people of color. Take a dose of paranoia and call your lawyer in the morning.

Margaret Kimberley is an editor and senior columnist for the Black Agenda Report. Her Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.Com. When sending email, please remember to replace the (at) with @.

 

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Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared. 

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