Sociology of Race and Reproductive Health

Barron Lerner reports how, over time, scientists have protested the fact that three statues were built to commemorate gynecologist Marion Sims (in South Carolina, Alabama and New York City), but none have been built to acknowledge the sacrifice of his three main “test subjects” Lucy, Anarcha and Betsy.

“The story of J. Marion Sims is a reminder of how history gets rewritten over time. The hope, of course, is that each new account gets closer to the truth”.

Similarly, the history of the clinical trials for the oral contraceptive pill were tested on poor women in a small town in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. The women were deceived about their participation in the trial. They not told about the possible side effects of the untested drug. They did not give their informed consent. Many women died and had ongoing health complications as a result of the trials.

Today, many women in advanced nations benefit from the experiments conducted on poor, enslaved and disempowered Black and Brown women, but few people know about the women whose health was compromised as a result. Additionally, for all the past sacrifices, poor women are less likely to benefit from scientific trials. While Sims’ experiments have been attributed to the eradication of vesicovaginal fistulas in advanced countries, this is still a major problem for 3.5 million women in developing nations, particularly in countries around Africa. The argument that unethical practices of the past might be excused for their present-day benefits is wilfully ignorant of the reality of who didn’t benefit back then and who hasn’t benefited today: enslaved and other poor Black women, and other impoverished women of colour.

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