Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The “Trans-V” Probe … and Other Historical Atrocities

I was sent a link an article written by The Goddess of Gumbo on Facebook.  It was extremely eye opening and yet painful to read. In it The Goddess puts the new anti abortion laws and forced ultrasounds into perspective by discussing the history of these procedures.  I am going to post a small section of the article, but please read the whole thing. 
There is a male equiv­a­lent to the vagi­nal exam­i­na­tion. It involves prob­ing the anus to check for prostate abnor­mal­i­ties, and it is justly regarded with fear and trem­bling by most of the male pop­u­la­tion. I don’t know the his­tory of proc­tol­ogy or of proc­to­log­i­cal exams, but I do know the his­tory of gyne­col­ogy. And I know, as many do not, that those famil­iar instru­ments of both fem­i­nine dis­com­fort and fem­i­nine sal­va­tion are the result of med­ical experimentation–without consent–on enslaved women in the South.


The story is told–eloquently, harrowingly–by Terri Kap­salis in Pub­lic Pri­vates. It begins with three enslaved African-American women–Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy–forced on an Alabama plan­ta­tion to have too many chil­dren too young. (Anar­cha, for exam­ple, was only 17).

Youth, inad­e­quate nutri­tion, and vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent health care, then and now, are a recipe for lengthy, dif­fi­cult labor dur­ing child­birth that not uncom­monly results in vagi­nal tears called “fis­tu­las”–a con­di­tion com­mon dur­ing the 19th cen­tury that is still epi­demic in parts of the world where there are too many mal­nour­ished child brides and too few doctors.

Enter J. Mar­ion Sims, the “father of the gyne­col­ogy,” also known as the  “archi­tect of the vagina.” Sims, born in South Car­olina and trained at the insti­tu­tion now called the Med­ical Uni­ver­sity of South Car­olina, attended Anar­cha dur­ing child­birth and was called back to cure the fis­tula appar­ently caused by his inept use of the forceps.

Now let’s be clear. Women afflicted by fis­tula suf­fer uncon­trolled incon­ti­nence, fre­quently mixed with blood, occa­sion­ally with feces. Then, as now,  fis­tula suf­fer­ers are out­casts within their com­mu­ni­ties. They are con­sid­ered “unclean” by cer­tain con­tem­po­rary reli­gious stan­dards. And dur­ing the period of enslave­ment, they were use­less to a mas­ter class which prized the sex­ual util­ity and breed­ing capac­i­ties of women of color above all attributes.
I con­sider the labor of a breed­ing woman as no object, and that a child raised every 2. years is of more worth than the best labor­ing man…   
wrote no less ardent a “demo­c­rat” than Thomas Jef­fer­son, our third pres­i­dent, in 1819.

So Sims–in a series of 28 oper­a­tions con­ducted with­out anes­the­sia (and yes, it was avail­able) between 1845 and 1849–in fact per­formed … a ser­vice as he invented the specu­lum, the stir­rups, and even­tu­ally “cured” the women’s fis­tu­las with his dis­cov­ery of the effi­cacy of sil­ver over  silk sutures.

Would that he had stopped there.

Read the rest here