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The Birth of Gynecology

Updated: Feb 18

In keeping with the solemn observance of Black history and how our history is part of the abortion narrative in America,  I wanted to introduce you, dear reader, to 3 enslaved women you have probably never heard about; Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy.  These three heroic African American mothers were the property of enslaver Dr. James Marion Sims, Southern landed gentry and surgeon. Dr. Sims, through multiple experimental surgeries on our three unsung heroes (and countless unnamed others), developed what is now known as modern gynecologic medicine in his small makeshift hospital on the grounds of his Alabama plantation. Dr. Sims, after practicing on Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy for 5 years, later moved north and became famous for pioneering restorative gynecological surgeries that would propel the United States ahead of Europe in terms of effectiveness in treating female reproductive related illnesses.

Dr. Sims is in fact heralded as the father of modern gynecology and his legacy enjoys a prominent place at institutions such as John's Hopkins Medical Center, a leading teaching hospital, in Baltimore, Maryland.

These are historical facts now easily found on Google mainly because scholars have diligently turned their gaze upon this era of modern medicine and the women like Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy who made it possible.  Each of these women (and other unknowable counterparts) would have languished in obscurity but for the tenacity of those academicians who were determined to get 'the story behind the story.'

History matters if we are to fully understand how Americans came to accept the idea of women as objects to be experimented upon and their fertility something to be manipulated. 

In Dr. Sims day, plantation owners needed methods to increase the slave population without having to purchase new slaves and that meant instituting  breeding programs to secure their bottom line. Any unhealthy black woman suffering from a protracted ailment that could affect her reproductive capacity was a problem that needed a solution. It became of paramount importance then that the enslaver secured the health of the black women they owned by any means necessary. 

One of the complications of childbirth (and violent rape) is the tearing of the vaginal and/or anal walls which produces what is known as a vesico-vaginal fistula (basically a tunnel between the vagina and the bowels) . These fistulae caused incontinence of stool through the vagina making the enslaved women who suffered from this condition difficult to breed.  This inconvenient malady meant that subsequent generations of slaves could not be secured with certainty by their enslavers.  Not only that,  but white women who suffered from the same untoward side-effects of childbirth wanted relief that had not yet been invented.

In steps Dr. Sims who begins surgical dissection work on Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy to rectify two unsolved problems all while gaining a following of Southern physicians eager to imitate or improve upon his techniques so that they could help plantation owners improve their spreadsheets.

History matters because the growth of the women's health movement in this country began with forced surgeries and other medical interventions on black women. 

In an interesting and not insignificant side note, these same women who were experimented on, Anarcha, Betsy and Lucy, were used by Dr. Sims as assistants to help his experimentation on other enslaved women. So, for example, Anarcha may have assisted in vaginal surgery on Betsy and vice versa. It is also known that each woman underwent multiple surgeries, most assuredly without proper anesthesia, all while Dr. Sims and his white southern medical colleagues were “perfecting” their techniques.

(As a side note,  it is still a widely held belief in medical circles that black women “naturally” have a higher pain tolerance than other groups largely because of this type of experimentation without anesthesia or analgesics).

History matters because what happens to a people group always happens in the context of multiple extrinsic factors and has lasting historical consequences. 

Here are a few things to meditate on as you think about this dynamic:

  1. How much did American wealth depend upon the ability of black women to bear and rear the free labor force?

  2. How did the need for free labor shift as the economic forces in the markets changed (i.e. the fluctuating European demand for cotton, tobacco,  sugar, rice etc.)?

  3. How much did the newly industrialized northern cities benefit from the migration of African Americans from Southern states in the early and mid 20th century?

  4. What were the forces that began to push back against increased black family size once industrialization peaked and shifted overseas in the 1970’s?

  5. How did advances in surgical procedures on enslaved women influence the modern day techniques for surgical abortions and sterilizations?

  6. Why, since the legalization of abortion, have almost 40% of abortions performed in this country been done on African American women?

It's not really that difficult to connect the dots and draw the lines, no matter how convoluted they seem, to the conclusion that black children matter when it suits the economic advancement of America. Active breeding of and active aborting of African Americans has been the bread and butter of American economics from our inception until this very moment. 

Jesus doesn't affirm any of this and neither should any of Christs’ followers. Jesus came to set the captives free from the sins that beset them. In fact He came to bless those seen as undesirable, unfit, unwanted, poor, disenfranchised, inconvenient and broken both financially but, more importantly,  spiritually.  In other words, He came for everybody that has been affected either on the giving or receiving end of such a sinful system as slavery; God's Grace miraculously covers all sin and the harm caused.

Dear reader,  it is time to re-examine our history and its many complicated layers in order to see where we need to repent. God already knows, but He is calling us to name our uniquely American diseases and psychological maladies and call out to Him in order to bring about our collective healing.

Many blessings as we continue the slow move forward in Christ.  Sylvia

Song: If Not For Grace Medley By Calvin Newell

Books to read: (Amazon links included)

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