Content warning: This article describes violations of the bodily autonomy of Black women, and contains graphic descriptions of racism and physical and sexual violence.

In May of 1962, Malcolm X, a prominent civil rights leader, pointed out during a speech that Black women were both the most disrespected and unprotected people in America. The poor treatment of Black women is especially evident in the medical and domestic spheres. As exemplified by the case of Henrietta Lacks, Black women have been forced to take part in brutal trials and unethical experiments in the name of medicine. 

J. Marion Sims’ standardization of a procedure for vesicovaginal fistula on Black women is another prominent example of this pattern. Documented cases of the prioritization of enslaved women’s reproductive capabilities over their well-being and race-based constructs about physiological differences between Black and white populations further illustrate how Black women’s bodies have been violated because of discrimination in science. Acknowledging this history is important in resisting the existing systemic traces of the racism that led to these historical injustices, which still oppress Black women today. 

The case of J. Marion Sims and the vesicovaginal fistula procedure

J. Marion Sims, an American surgeon, is considered to be the father of gynecology for his work in standardizing the surgical procedure for vesicovaginal fistulas, a condition in which an opening forms between the vaginal walls and the bladder. 

The process of standardizing this procedure began in June of 1845, which is when he first encountered cases of vesicovaginal fistula. Sims performed numerous surgical trials of the procedure on enslaved Black women. Sims considered the process of standardizing the procedure for vesicovaginal fistula experimental, so he was uncaring about the outcomes of the Black women on which he experimented. Their fates during the surgery were not important to Sims. 

Despite the availability of anaesthetics at the time, Sims did not use them while performing surgical trials on enslaved Black women. He only began using anaesthetics on his white patients after his success in standardizing the procedure — when he cared to recognize that white women who came to him could not handle the pain of the procedure while conscious.

Sims’ choice to not use anaesthetics emphasizes his disregard for the pain and humiliation of Black patients during surgery. The enslaved women suffering from vesicovaginal fistulas could not perform field work or household duties, nor could they have children due to complications of the condition, so Sims’ choice to perform experimental procedures on these women was nothing more than a way for their enslavers to gain some form of value from their enslavement of these women. 

In one case, 12 physicians observed the procedure Sims enacted on a Black woman called Lucy, in her most vulnerable state as she endured this painful surgery without anaesthesia, positioned on her hands and knees. 

Slave owners capitalizing on enslaved women’s fertility

The state’s prioritization of Black women’s bodies over their well-being is another form of dehumanization that Black women have faced. The prioritization of enslaved women’s fetuses over their own lives has played a role in court decisions and emphasized the notion that a Black woman’s value is rooted in her fertility. 

An 1855 court case involving the state of Missouri and an enslaved 14-year-old girl regarding the murder of an enslaver highlights this sentiment. The Black girl, named Celia, had been the victim of multiple rapes by her enslaver and was forced to have two children as a result. Celia retaliated against her enslaver and murdered him, which led the state to press murder charges against her and eventually find her guilty of the act, disregarding the brutal acts to which he subjected her. 

The court sentenced the young woman to death, but during the trial, she was pregnant with a child from the sexual abuse she had endured. Because of this, the state decided to keep her alive until she gave birth to the child; only after the event would she be subject to capital punishment. 

Constructed myths about racial differences to justify enslavement

Enslaved women were often the victims of dehumanizing punishments that slave owners justified on the basis of constructed biological differences between Black people and their white counterparts. 

During the nineteenth century, scientists made comparisons between Black people and animals such as apes and went as far as to say that apes would be able to breed with Black women, which led to the idea that Black people are physically stronger than white people. The enslaver who chose to believe this punished enslaved women more severely on the grounds that they would be able to handle the pain due to their biology. 

One documented account of an enslaved woman whose enslaver struck her on the head with a piece of wood highlights a case of the latter’s choice to believe in race-based biological differences. The woman described the shock and surprise expressed by her enslaver when she lost consciousness. Another account of brutal mistreatment includes an enslaver forcing a woman he’d enslaved to eat food that was fatal to his dog because the owner had believed that the woman’s stomach was stronger than the dog’s. These accounts highlight how race-based biological differences were constructed, as ‘real’ science, to justify enslaving and punishing Black people. 

Racist ideologies during the nineteenth century dictated how white people treated enslaved African American women, in both medical and domestic settings. The case of standardizing the surgical procedure for vesicovaginal fistula is but one example of the involuntary contributions of enslaved Black women to advance the study of medicine. The case of Celia and others like her illustrate the extent to which Black women’s bodies have been further violated even in non-medical contexts. The constructed race-based biological differences about Black people actually regressed medicine and helped enslavers justify subjecting enslaved African American women to gruesome and dehumanizing acts. 

Unfortunately, some racial biases still hold a place in our world today. Many advancements in medicine, no matter how much scientists and physicians present them as objective and apolitical, are rooted in dark, racist, and dehumanizing histories. It is important, then, that we question the roots of common medical practices and that we push for more inclusivity in the medical field going forward.