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Decolonizing Public Health

The right to health includes both freedoms and entitlements. All people must have the freedom to make decisions about their own health, and they are entitled to the tools required to ensure that their decisions are well informed and can be realized.

JOHANNESBURG – When we examine the progress of medical science, we tend to focus on the good – the myriad ways in which innovative drugs, tools, and procedures have prolonged and improved lives. But this history has a dark side. Medical research has been overwhelmingly racist and sexist. It has been built upon slavery and colonization. All too often, it has been utterly inhumane.

In The Birth of American Gynecology, Deirdre Cooper Owens notes that, in slavery, just as value was extracted from healthy black bodies (in the form of labor), it was also extracted from sick and deceased black bodies – particularly black women’s bodies – through medical research. Doctors often used the reproductive organs of black cadavers to facilitate their research and educate others.

Living black women were not spared. Doctors conducted experiments on them and used them to practice surgical techniques. J. Marion Sims’ experiments on enslaved women laid the groundwork for modern gynecology. While the results of Sims’ unethical experiments ultimately helped countless women (and made him very famous), it would be decades before black women would have access to them.

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