Black Pain: Slavery & The Traumatic Roots Of Modern Gynecology

sad African American woman

Black people have contributed greatly to the advancement of medicine, oftentimes at the risk of our well-being. Particularly, the Black woman. Henrietta Lacks is a prime example. After being treated for a cervical tumor in 1951, cells from Lacks’ cervix were taken without her permission and used for research. Her cells became known as the HeLa immortal cell line, the first able to replicate infinitely, and are basis for medical breakthroughs like the HPV vaccine.

READ: Is Black Pain Treated Less?

This left an indelible mark on an existing open wound for Blacks and healthcare in the United States. J. Marion Sims, known as the “father of modern gynecology,” used female slaves to treat vesico-vaginal fistula (abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder and the vagina that allows the continuous involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal vault.) Sims didn’t anesthetize these women during these excruciatingly painful surgeries.

His belief was that Black women, unlike upper class White women, could endure the pain at a higher level. During an 1857 lecture he said the surgeries “were painful enough to justify the trouble.” Sims, a slave owner, set the precedent for a practice that still continues to this day.

Dr. Vanessa Worthington Gamble is a physician and scholar widely regarded for her studies in medical humanities. An NPR article with Dr. Vanessa Worthington points out these medical atrocities.

“There was a belief at the time that black people did not feel pain in the same way. They were not vulnerable to pain, especially black women. So that they had suffered pain in other parts of their lives and their pain was ignored.”

Ignored is often how Black people feel in the medical sphere. You might’ve heard your parents say that you should always dress up in your best threads when you go to the hospital. This systemic belief comes from a history of being treated as less than human in America.

READ: Longer Waits, Higher Costs: Why Are Black Men With Prostate Cancer Getting Inferior Care?

“These women were property. These women could not consent. These women also had value to the slaveholders for production and reproduction – how much work they could do in the field, how many enslaved children they could produce. And by having these fistulas, they could not continue with childbirth and also have difficulty working,” states Dr. Worthington.

While Black women aren’t enduring the same level of mistreatment that Sims’ slave patients, Lucy, Betsey and Anarcha received, there is a growing amount of evidence that Blacks are still….

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