On Feb. 13, Sex and Self, a McGill-based sexual education organization, hosted a virtual panel titled “Institutionalized Racism in Healthcare” as a part of their “Facing the Facts” event series. The panel included Tanya Bass, a self-described “Southern Sexologist” with experience in the fields of reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STI) prevention, women’s health, and health equity. The second presenter was Dr. Rachel Bervell, a medical resident at the University of California and one of the co-founders of The Black OB/GYN Project and founder of the non-profit organization Hugs For Ghana.
Felicia Gisondi, president and founder of Sex and Self, defined the scope of the event’s conversation and explained the educational mission of Sex and Self which is to review the systemic and historical injustice found within the medical community.
“Many folks rarely review and analyze the institutions that perpetuate [systemic] health care,” Gisondi said. “In reviewing sexual and reproductive injustices, Sex and Self has learned that the systems that are supposed to provide care to Black folks often fail them.”
Bass began the presentations by calling attention to unethical medical practices that were used in the early North American British colonies and explained that many white surgeons dehumanized enslaved Black women through non-consensual operations.
“Some people call [Dr. J. Marion Sims] the father of gynecology,” Bass said. “I don’t. [He operated on] enslaved women with painful fistulas [who] couldn’t consent because they were not citizens. We were able to get to modern day gynecology on the backs of Black and brown women.”
Discussing these unethical experiments that advanced medical science, Bass explored how current conceptions of the Black body are shaped by Sims’ experiments performed on enslaved women, mentioning his victims by name.
“The development of what we now call the speculum is [thanks to] Black and brown women, specifically Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy,” Bass said. “[What results] is also this idea [that] Black women are able to endure more pain that white women, as they are strong women who’ve [had to] endure these operations. They didn’t have a choice, and couldn’t speak out.”
Considering how racism continues to live on in modern healthcare institutions, Bass stated that confronting the history of systemic racism in the North American medical system is critical to incorporating anti-racism into healthcare practices today.
“Unless you pay attention to what’s happening or folks are able to speak out and stop the injustice, it will continue to happen,” Bass said. “There were Black folks who were enlisted in the South to help promote the use of birth control, but also [to] promote eugenics and control the Black population.”
Bervell elaborated on the contributions that racist doctors such as Sims made to the field of practical gynecology and the relation of such contributions to slavery and forced labour in the American South.
“[Obstetrics and gynecology] are really rooted […] in slavery,” Bervell said. “In the same way that America was built using the hands of African Americans, medicine was furthered using their whole bodies.”
Regarding how medical professionals conducted non-consensual experiments on enslaved African women, Bervell explained how these experiments were legally justified and urged broader recognition of the facts.
“Black women were frequently the subjects of these medical experiments because they were convenient, compared to white women who [had to] give consent to the procedure,” Bervell said. “All that was needed was permission of the owner. We have to say it, we have to speak it. It is racism, not race, that is affecting Black women’s health.”
Gisondi concluded her statement by sharing her stance with The McGill Tribune on anti-racist sexual education practices.
“Creating an event [with] Black experts lead[ing] an open conversation surrounding systemic racism within the healthcare system has provided us with a true understanding of how our healthcare system was created,” Gisondi wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “This has allowed us and our audience to understand why Black and POC folks are continually discriminated against and what can be done next.”