lets go back in time and murder marion sims and “modern gynecology”

Content warning: medical abuse, sexual violence against enslaved people, racism, racist violence, medical history, abuse apologism, slavery

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So, I’ve been kind of absent lately, but there’s nothing like valentine’s day and the extreme racism that is marion sims and the story of “modern gynecology” to get me heated enough to recover my password and revisit this long-ignored blog. Like, wordpress has three layers to go through to be able to create a new password, and that’s how angry I was.

It all started when I had a work thing due, so I was scrolling facebook, and a friend had posted this review of a new play about Marion Sims and his victims. The headline for the review? “A new play honors the enslaved Black women who helped improve our understanding of reproductive health.” So, like, extra yikes.

Marion Sims, is often erroneously referred to as the “founding father of modern gynecology.” I say erroneously, because a more accurate description is “the abusive piece of shit who purchased enslaved women and conducted cruel, sadistic unanesthetized surgeries on their unconsenting bodies, over and fucking over, in the name of fucking science”. Specifically, Dr. Sims was interested in fistulas, an obstetric complication of poverty, in which people’s pelvic bones are mishappen by chronic malnutrition, meaning that in labor, the fetal head can’t fit through the pelvis and slowly wears a hole in the tissues that separate the vagina from the rectum. Valid interest for a slave-owning rapist who kept human beings in utter poverty, maybe, but sims’ method for “studying” fistulas? Fucking slicing open enslaved people’s vaginas to create fistulas. So yeah, this review calls marion sims “controversial.” Controversial, but not a fucking terrorist shitstain on humanity.  So, you know, as a responsible science communicator with a rage headache, I had to write back.

Dear Racist Reviewer,

Fucking yikes.

Could we please start from the premise that the enslaved women sims strapped down and operated on without consent or anesthesia or regard for their humanity were survivors of some hardcore sexual violence? who were being sexually abused, not “helping to improve our understanding of reproductive health”?

Like, do we refer to Mengele’s (white) victims as “detained Jewish, Queer, Disabled and Roma people who helped improve our understanding of organ transplantation and wound healing?” I’ve personally never heard anyone talk like that about the victims of the Nazi doctors’ cruel “experiments”, though those experiments (on unwilling white bodies) did lead to knowledge that enabled lifesaving kidney transplants.  Would you ever even try to paint Mengele as the controversial father of transplants and twin studies? Nah, we all admit he committed unthinkable atrocities. He’s not controversial, he’s the atrocity guy, and nothing, not even lifesaving transplants, justify his atrocities.

He did honestly improve our knowledge of transplants; we really couldn’t do them before Mengele sewed people’s ears to their siblings’ backs. But that’s not the point of Mengele’s abuses. His (white) victims are remembered as victims of torture, not somewhat unwilling but still interested and helpful casualties of the ignorance of their time. We offer that respect to the white people and white bodies mengele experimented on.

Could we please, please, have the same respect for Black people and Black bodies sims abused and cruelly experimented on? Oh wait, no, this is a review out of  white Amerikka, which does whatever it can to hide the fact that Black women, especially, are at least as human as their oppressors. This is white amerikkka, where Black pain is never seen as fucking real.  I forgot where i was for a blessed second. But yeah, this is the land of the brave, where Black folks in labor are routinely told to stop being so dramatic, where Black folks with broken bones rarely get pain relief in the emergency room, though white people with broken bones sure do, where pain prescriptions to elderly Black folks with cancer are astoundingly uncommon, and I could go on and on and on, mostly because as white “scientists”, we are not at all far removed from marion sims.

Secondly, there’s the question of “helped us improve our understanding of reproductive health”. Who is the “us” in this sentence? Let’s remember that we are talking about the period in US history where chattel slavery was fully legal and supported……and enslaved Black midwives were fucking heroes in the midst of unimaginable horror. Enslaved midwives often the only source of health care on plantations, and they did a damn fine job of keeping parents and babies alive and healthy in horrific conditions. I am willing to bet quite lot on the fact that Sims didn’t discover anything Black midwives didn’t already know.

We see this phenomenon happening again and again in obstetrics and mainstream/white midwifery, too (looking at you, Ina May “terfy shitnugget” Gaskin!). Someone (white, often wealthy, often male, though sometimes a white hippy with moldy dreadlocked pubes, again looking at you, Ina May “racist fucknoodle” Gaskin) discovers something that Black and Indigenous women/non-men have known for fucking ever, often by directly stealing for BIPOC, and suddenly “our understanding” has improved. (though in Sims’ case he “improved his understanding” by fucking giving unanesthized victims fistulas and then repairing the fistulas).

Like, no, bro, YOUR understanding has improved, sure,  in the worst possible manner for improving your knowledge. But please for the love of god’s underpants, let’s not claim to have found anything new under the sun. Our knowledge (and by our, I actually mean an inclusive, all of humanity and we as human beings know) has not changed, we just have a shitty person with fucktons of stolen, unearned power co-opting something oppressed folks have always know.

Or, as the review author put it: “[the playwright] brought sensitivity and honor to enslaved black women’s lives, revealing how their suffering sparked innovation that has improved the reproductive health of all women.” Thank you, reviewer, for bringing honor to enslaved Black women, since they clearly didn’t have any before you praised their abuser’s  “contributions to science.” Like, we might mean very different things by the phrase “honoring enslaved Black women”;  I mean it more in the sense it was used by activists with the Black Youth Project who honored sims’ victims by demanding that his statue be removed from Central Park. As an aside, it’s also pretty damn well documented that death in childbirth and postpartum went up, not down, with the advent of modern gynecology. So yeah, maybe pushing midwives, and particularly midwives of color who were actively persecuted by state governments and the newly emerging (white af) field of public health, maybe pushing midwives aside in favor of modern gynecology was, like, not the most, umm, improving of reproductive health move in the world?

Let’s not degrade or discredit the poc who already knew this stuff by saying Sims discovered anything.  And, fun fact, do you know that midwives in many different countries in Africa and the middle east were documented as repairing fistulas and even doing cesareans – with very low morbidity and mortality – as early as the 1600s, a good 200+ years before sims “improved our understanding”? Its true! Do we really wanna keep sounding like we think it doesn’t happen until a white person steals it?

And let’s definitely not degrade sims’ victims by suggesting that his/white people’s gains in knowledge did anything like justify the abuses he committed.

Also, I just need to say this is the most disgusting sentence I’ve read in a long time: “[Philomena] instructs the other enslaved women on the nature of their illnesses, naming and defining the medical terms that “Dr. George” has written in his notebook”.  For one thing, “dr george” FUCKING CAUSED THEIR ILLNESSES by fucking slicing fistulas into their recto-vaginal walls. Which is an even more direct means of giving people fistulas than the fact that poverty and malnutrition are pretty much synonymous with being enslaved, and malnutrition causes shit like rickets, which in turn lead to prolonged, obstructed labor (i.e. the fetus can’t fit through the pelvic bones) and the pressure of the fetal head on the relatively thin wall between the vagina and the anus tearing an actual literal hole. Kinda gross, but not as gross as the sentence at the beginning of the paragraph.

Second, I will dig up “dr george” and give him a blow job if there wasn’t an enslaved midwife on his very plantation who had a name for fistulas and knew how to repair them. And oh the condescending abuse apologism.  I’m cancelling all science and innovation that is built on abuse apologism.  It’s just done, y’all.

We can do better. There is no neutrality, especially not in the history of science. And honestly, modern gynecology, you can eat my entire ass. Home abortions now available in my bathroom.

Love,

Nechama

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