Recognizing the Real Legacy of Dr. James Marion Sims

A statue depicting Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th-century surgeon who performed grotesque experiments on enslaved black women without anesthesia or consent, has been removed from Central Park. But the statue will still stand on Sims’ grave—and the enduring and pervasive effects of his appalling experiments in the field of medicine will still remain.

The modern healthcare system is marred by implicit and explicit biases and institutionally-entrenched racism and sexism that imperil the lives of black women, especially in the arena of sexual and reproductive health. Ironically known as the “father of gynecology,” Sims’ experiments laid the groundwork for fundamentally discriminatory medical perspectives and practices that continue to endanger black women’s bodies and lives.

The campaign to remove Sims’ statue started as far back as 2010, and Black women gathered in Central Park during its transfer to protest that it would be left standing, donning medical gowns covered in blood stains. Their protests and the persistent call to stop honoring Sims’ memory are reminders that for black women, the sexual health discrimination made real in Sims’ practices remain not just a part of their history, but their present circumstances.

“Many black women are dying in childbirth, they are giving birth to low weight babies and enduring some things more distressing than in the antebellum era,” Deirdre Cooper Owens, author of Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, told the DailyMail. “Black Americans are by and large are not given the same amount of pain relief and viewed as somehow being more likely to be addicted to illegal drugs. This is all born from the 19th century.”

In New York City alone, black mothers have a risk of death 12 times that of white mothers. A 2016 analysis from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that between black college-educated mothers and white mothers without a high school diploma giving birth in local hospitals, black women were more likely to suffer from severe pregnancy or childbirth complications, despite their higher education level.

But these deadly gaps and trends aren’t unique to the resting place of Sims’ statue. In the U.S., black women die due to childbirth-related causes at three to four times the rate of white women. A national study observing the five most common medical complications that result in maternal death and injury found that black women were up to three times more likely to die from the conditions than white women. The World Health Organization estimates that black mothers in the U.S. die at approximately the same rate as women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan.

These numbers are not coincidences. They are direct results of biases and systemic injustices in health care. A study from researchers at the University of Virginia and Northwestern University found that medical personnel often assume that black people feel less pain than white people. Attacks on reproductive health and rights and abortion access also contribute to poorer health outcomes among women, and always hit women of color the hardest.

A black woman in the United States is 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth complications than a white woman. That disparity marks the largest on the basis of race in the entire field of women’s health.

Centuries after the life of Dr. James Sims, the consequences of racial biases and discrimination in sexual health care remain deadly. In the days, weeks, months and years to come following the removal of a monument to his role in the creation of such injustices, we must make sure to never forget the extent of his atrocities and the work that lies ahead of us in order to finally make them right.

Natasha Piñon is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a junior at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and journalism. She also writes for The Daily Trojan.

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