J. Marion Sims was a racist and sociopath. He was memorialized with a statue in New York’s Central Park.
The bronze likeness, once located across from the New York Academy of Medicine in upper Manhattan, hailed Sims as a surgeon and philanthropist whose “brilliant achievement carried the fame of American surgery throughout the entire world.” Despite plenty of space on the massive granite pedestal, there was no mention of how Sims came to be known as “the father of modern gynecology.”
He practiced his techniques with surgical experiments, without anesthesia, on enslaved Black women.
In 2018, Sims’s statue was finally removed from the park. What cannot be erased is this nation’s entrenched history of violating Black and brown women’s bodies.
Just as sickening as a whistleblower’s recent accusations that a doctor at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility performed nonconsensual hysterectomies on immigrant women is how easy it is to believe her claims.
According to Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse who worked at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, a doctor conducted so many of these unwarranted surgeries, one woman detainee even had a creepy moniker for him: “the uterus collector.”
Wooten’s accusations haven’t been proven. There are, however, other allegations of abusive or substandard medical care at the ICE facility.
In a statement, Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, vice chair of the House immigration subcommittee, said, “It appears that there may be at minimum 17 to 18 women who were subjected to unnecessary medical gynecological procedures from just this one doctor, often without appropriate consent or knowledge, and with the clear intention of sterilization.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said the accusations, if true, would be “a staggering abuse of human rights,” called on the Department of Homeland Security to "immediately investigate the allegations detailed in this complaint.”
No one should ever wonder why people of color are reluctant to volunteer for COVID-19 vaccine trials, despite the pandemic’s disproportionate impact in Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities. Medical mistrust is real and hard earned because procedures that rob women of color of their agency and defile their bodies are steeped in this nation’s history.
It is, of course, the kind of history that America often tries to bury whole, but the echoes of its atrocities can never be fully silenced. In her landmark book, “Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty,” Dorothy Roberts wrote that teaching hospitals in the South routinely allowed unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women as practice for medical residents. “This sort of abuse was so widespread in the South that these operations came to be known as ‘Mississippi appendectomies,’" she wrote.
In 1961, iconic civil and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer underwent surgery to remove a uterine tumor. She woke up having undergone a hysterectomy, performed without her consent and for no medical reason. Doctors used forced sterilization as population control, often targeting poor women of color.
In 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board was forced to walk back its endorsement of eugenics, titled “Poverty and Norplant — Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?” This was its argument: "The main reason more black children are living in poverty is that the people having the most children are the ones least capable of supporting them. . . So why not make a major effort to reduce the number of children, of any race, born into such circumstances?”
With its racist foundation, America has worked overtime for centuries to police the bodies and reproductive freedom of Black, brown, and indigenous women. To medically revoke a woman’s right to have a child not only controls population diversity in the most dystopian way, but also judges which women are — and aren’t — worthy of motherhood.
Sims was not the only doctor whose barbarism with surgical instruments forever altered the lives of his unwilling patients. Nor will the accusations about the terrors endured by immigrant women likely end with reports about one doctor in one ICE facility in one state.
White supremacy is a thief, and in each generation, with little effort, it finds too many willing accomplices.