A Shared Guest Post by Sean Saifa Wall and Dr Cary Gabriel Costello
“In preparing for my talk, “Undeniable Blackness and Impossible Hermaphrodites” at UC Colorado at Colorado Springs next week, I revisited J. Marion Sims, heralded as the father of gynecology. I couldn’t help but feel my heart pound and break reading how he performed vaginal fistula repair experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. As history remembers him, I remember Anarcha, one of these women on whose body he performed at least thirty surgeries. He would continue to do such gynecological experiments on poor Irish women in New York City as well.
These atrocities are not confined to history because we are still debating ethics with butchers.”
Sean Saifa Wall
I wanted to share this, and the insight that doctors today continue to gain fame in their field by experimenting on the unconsenting bodies of intersex children. J. Marion Sims is lauded to this day by gynecologists for his development of a procedure for surgical repair of vaginal fistulas. The fact that he purchased enslaved African American women to experiment on, their consent being treated as an absolute non-issue; the fact that many of these women died as a result; the fact that his gynecological experiments followed Sims’ giving up on a failed series of experiments aimed at rearranging the skull bones of slave babies with a shoemaker’s awl; the fact that Sims’ contemporaries were disturbed by his experiments — all of these facts are now excused and whitewashed by surgical gynecologists today. Vaginal fistulas are a terrible problem, they note — and thus the enslaved women upon whom Sims operated were being done a great service and would certainly have consented — a huge presumption which I would highly question, given the great pain, limited chances of success, and high death rate they faced.
L.L. Wall, for example, is a gynecological surgeon who regularly travels to Africa to repair vaginal fistulas today. There is no doubt that this treatment improves lives, and is much wished for–though it is also true that doctors who travel from the West to developing nations to perform dramatic surgeries get to bask in praise and are lauded in the media in a manner similar to the way 19th century missionaries were: as the Great White Hope saving the poor benighted native. In any case, L.L. Wall has published a famous defense of Sims as a “conquering surgical hero” in the Journal of Medical Ethics, in which he dismisses those who decry Sims’ human experimentation as “strident” voices ignorant of proper historical and scientific methods. He claims that given the social outcast status of the incontinent vaginal fistula sufferer, enslaved women “would have jumped at the opportunity to have surgery.”
Of course, nobody asked them. Nor were the words of any of the enslaved experimental surgical subjects recorded, testifying to their experiences, and whether they were indeed willing to risk death and terrible pain for s slim chance at a cure.
As Saifa points out, this ghastly history casts a certain light on the current assertions of the doctors who surgically reconstruct the genitalia of intersex children–incapable of giving or withholding consent — that the children would surely want that surgery to be done, to save them from social outcast status. And doctors in the U.S. today continue to make names for themselves in surgical circles by devising new procedures for “correcting disorders of sex development” — while intersex adults who cry out that these surgeries have mutilated them are treated as strident and ignorant.
Medical hubris is a terrible thing.
Cary Gabriel Costello
Sean Saifa Wall is Co-President of Advocates for Informed Choice.
AIC works for the civil rights of all children born intersex in the US
Dr Cary Gabriel Costello is a Professor of Sociology @ University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee