Written and researched by Tomei Kuehl
Accompanying artworks selected in partnership with Talia Cardin, Youth-facilitator to the Youth Sexual Health Program Board
“Racism is both prejudices combined with social and institutional power. It is a system of advantage based on skin color.”
– Definition provided by Kennedy Mitchum, an advocate for an updated definition in Merriam-Webster
Prior to the Civil War, abortion and contraceptives were legal in the U.S. and used by Indigenous women and Black women, working as midwives. When slavery ended, skilled midwives were a threat to white men who endeavored to professionalize childbirth. Male gynecologists built their expertise on the bodies of Black women.
Marion Simms was a 19th century doctor known as the “father of gynecology”. His success is due to his experimentation on enslaved women of African descent. Three known women, Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy, were operated on without anesthesia as many as thirty times in 4 years (Sowemimo, 2021). Some of the practices developed by Sims from his nonconsensual experimentation on enslaved women are still used today.
Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who died of an aggressive form of cervical cancer in 1951, had her cancer tissue given to researchers without her knowledge or consent. These cells, known as HeLa cells, had the capacity to reproduce exponentially and have been fundamental in making scientific and profitable discoveries in the fields of polio eradication, virology, cancer – particularly the human papillomavirus, and genetics. The Lacks family has received no compensation (Sowemimo, 2021).
According to the CDC, Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related issues than white women. Racism is a lasting and living legacy in the realm of sexual health.
- Sowemimo, A (2021, January 10). The racist and unethical origins of modern gynecology. Clue