Medical Apartheid

Written by Madeline Michel ‘23, History major and International Relations minor

On Monday, March 15, 2021, the Health and Society Program, the Bioethics Institute, and the Department of African American Studies, in collaboration with the Seaver College of Science and Engineering, the Office of Intercultural Affairs, the Departments of Communication Studies, History, Sociology, and Women’s and Gender Studies, and the Journalism Program hosted “Medical Apartheid Goes Viral: African Americans, Historical Bioethics, and the Coronavirus Vaccines.” The event featured Harriet A. Washington, a bioethics professor at Columbia University and Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine. Washington has also held fellowships at the University of Nevada’s Black Mountain Institute, Harvard Medical School, Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Stanford University. The event started with an engaging presentation which led into a lively Q&A session.

Washington’s presentation was structured around the topics of her book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, which details how American medicine and racism are historically intertwined. Washington first focused on the role of Black Americans in medical experiments, most notably the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which she referred to as an “overburdened icon.” She described it this way, because it is the best-known experiment where Black Americans were treated unethically in a medical experiment, but there were many more similar experiments that are overlooked. These numerous experiments are central to Washington’s research, as they show how Black bodies have been dehumanized repeatedly in U.S. history. She then further explained that the dehumanization of Black bodies was also a result of historical mythology, using the examples that during slavery Black bodies were said to be inherently made for slavery or that they could not die of certain diseases, like yellow fever. Also, during the early 20th century Black men were showcased as animals in touring circuses, likening them to animals and further dehumanizing them. Washington then moved on to discuss the specific role of Black women in history, starting with the heightened birth difficulties they faced during slavery because they had earlier births and more complications because of the brutal work of slavery. Later, the role of Black midwives was examined, and Washington explained they were often preferred by white women over doctors because they used herbal teas, mild chemicals, and clean cloths and clothes while delivering, while medical doctors used forceps and did not execute healthy hygiene practices. Lastly, Washington talked about the current erosion of informed consent in medicine, which is the focus of her latest book Carte Blanche: The Erosion of Medical Consent. The erosion of informed consent, which is the consent given to researchers after being told the possible consequences of a study, has led to disparate medical treatment and a furthering of racial bias in medicine, showing that institutional racial bias still holds in modern medicine.

At the end, a dynamic Q&A session was held where Washington answered questions about our personal obligations and the obligations of institutions in addressing the racist history of medicine as well as the efficacy of certain types of protesting in preventing the continuation of racist practices; how institutions have ensured unethical medical experimentation on Black bodies will never occur again; and the problem of shared distribution of vaccine resources between richer and poorer countries happening in the current pandemic. In conclusion, Washington’s presentation brought light to an aspect of history that is often neglected and gave attendants critical knowledge which they can use to continuously showcase the often ignored parts of history.