The Collegian
Thursday, August 18, 2022

Bioethicist links health care disparity to history

The racial disparity in health care today has direct roots in the historical treatment of African Americans, bioethicist Harriet Washington said Thursday.

She spoke a crowd of about 140 students and community members in the Brown-Alley Room as part of the Women Involved in Living and Learning Quest Speaker Series on Politics of the Body.

"There is a duality in American medicine," said Washington, who has been a fellow in ethics at Harvard Medical School and a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at the Tuskegee Institute. "African Americans have seen one face of it, and whites have seen the other."

The medical system has not fostered trust within the black community, she said.

There has been double the number of death rates among black infants compared to white infants, she said, and blacks have lower life expectancies. Two-thirds of black and Hispanic neighborhoods have pharmacies that do not carry prescription pain medicine, which drugstores blame on the prevalence of drug users in the area, Washington said.

The inadequate health care for blacks stems from their historical abuse in medical research from temporal American institutions of slavery and apartheid, Washington said. Scientific racism caused blacks to be targets for medical tests and suffer inhumane treatment without consent.

Physicians who wrote about their discoveries omitted the abusive means they used, she said.

"The medical heroes that we read about took risks, but often practiced on powerless people," Washington said. "They were heroes, but monsters and criminals, too."

Dr. James Marion Sims, one such "hero" credited with curing a painful childbirth condition in the 1840s, operated on female black slaves without anesthesia and against their will, Washington said.

Exposing these truths was Washington's aim in her book, "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans," which has received numerous awards.

"I think her talk was so powerful," said Melissa Ooten, associate director of the WILL program, "because we don't know this hidden history. Students left the lecture captivated, shocked, horrified and intrigued."

The rationale for testing experimental drugs and performing research was based on myths about black hyper sexuality, the idea that black women were bad mothers and "convenient beliefs" that black people didn't feel pain the same as whites did.

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"There is an echo or hangover in recent days that black women are bad mothers," Washington said. Despite a study that found that the same percentage of black and white women used drugs while pregnant, the number of black women sentenced for the crime is 10 times higher than whites. And the media-contrived myth of the so-called black "crack baby" in the late 1980s targeted black mothers, though 80 percent of crack users were white, Washington said.

Though Washington wanted to go to medical school she wasn't able to because she was a black woman. Ooten said that she felt Washington's research vindicated her and made a real contribution to the field of medicine, despite the circuitous route.

"When you walk out of these lectures," said sophomore WILL student Laura Combs, "you think about things you never did before or only considered subconsciously."

Contact reporter Jenn Hoffman at

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