The year is 1961 and you are going into the hospital for minor surgery to remove a tumor. You have two adopted daughters, and your own pregnancies ended in stillbirths. What should have been minor surgery, becomes major surgery when your doctor removes your uterus without your consent. The autonomy over your reproductive rights has been taken away from you. You are a Black woman living in Mississippi, and have just had what is known as a “Mississippi appendectomy” ; forced sterilization that is so common there is a name for it. This story is what led Civil Rights Activist Fannie Lou Hamer to fight for human rights. This was her story. We often know her for uttering the phrase, “that she is sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But there was more to her story than a common utterance.
Eugenics is the practice of protecting society from those that are deemed undesirable, the poor, uneducated, people of color, and prisoners are a few examples of those who have been sterilized against their will. We tend to teach our children about eugenics in terms of the Holocaust and Hitler, but eugenics has been practiced in multiple countries including America. As we continue our debate about women’s reproductive rights, it seems now is an appropriate time to understand that female reproductive rights, like many things in this country are not equal.
America has a developed nation has the highest rate of maternal mortality. That number is even higher when you factor in race, and a study came out recently that Black babies die more often when they have a white doctor. A few weeks ago, a bombshell article came out that doctors were again performing hysterectomies on woman who had not asked for it at ICE detention camps. Other women at these camps have undergone unnecessary gynecological exams and procedures. America has a very long history with using women of color as little more than lab rats to further advance the area of gynecology.
I think what pained me most was the lack of outrage. Feminists in this country have been up in arms fighting for reproductive rights, but maybe what they really mean is they are fighting for the reproductive rights of white women at the expense of Black women. The father of gynecology, James Marion Sims, made his name experimenting on Black female slaves. Slaves who were not under anesthesia, and were there without their consent. He has been memorialized with statues in multiple U.S cities, including here in New York, paid for by white women. Because after he “perfected” his techniques he performed them on white women, who were of course consenting and under the proper medication to keep them from feeling as much pain.
As we go through this series, the most heartbreaking part is not that they are true, but that they are being repeated. Until we learn to address the most heinous parts of ourselves, our past will continue to be a part of our present and future. As I’ve gotten older, I understand more and more how Fannie Lou Hamer felt. I too am sick and tired of being sick and tired. We must continue to tell her story and the stories of millions of other women who have had their reproductive rights stolen from them.