This guest post is written by K. Badgers, a valued contributor to this blog.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana
Memory is intrinsically entwined with politics – there are restrictions on who is deemed important enough to remain in the history books and in the public eye. As a result, not everyone deserving leaves a legacy, whereas certain practices and beliefs are perpetuated to become part of our customs and culture which aren’t in the interest of the greater good. The root of several modern-day problems – including the widespread medicalization of the female body – can be identified by looking back into history. As the above quote by Santayana suggests, it’s often important to recognize these key, damaging moments of the past in order to successfully move forward.
Bad Medical Practice has Roots in Nazi Directives
In one of the most prestigious German research organizations, the Max Planck Institute, whose predecessor the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded by Nazi researchers, it was discovered in the 1980s that about 700 brain preparations from patients deemed “mentally ill”, and euthanized during the Nazi regime were still part of the collections at that time. In fact, the brain sections were used in research right into the 1960s. The Max Planck Society decided that all brain sections prepared during the Nazi era should be buried, and a memorial for the victims was erected in a Munich cemetery in 1990. In 1997, Max Planck President Hubert Markl set up an independent committee to investigate and document the connections of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and its institutes with the Nazi state apparatus. Despite the work of the committee, in 2013 a finding in the archive revealed that not all brain sections had been discovered and buried in 1990, so the investigation is continuing until the present day.
The Nazi obsession with “mental hygiene” follows the same twisted logic as that of “racial hygiene”. According to Nazi directives, the purity of the Aryan gene pool had to be preserved by all means, so alongside the non-Aryan races, religious minorities, homosexuals, the mentally ill and the physically disabled were persecuted, murdered and sterilised as well. A little-known fact concerning the Nazis is their obsession with cancer, as cancer was an adequate metaphor for unwanted elements taking over the healthy body of the nation, metamorphosing, uncontrollably spreading, taking space and nutrition, just like a tumour does within a host body.
As Robert N. Proctor documents, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6573.html the Nazis initiated mass screening for cancer, with a special focus on the cancers of the female reproductive tract, in fact the idea to control the reproductive organs from every healthy adult women by penetrating them with tools and fingers(well-woman exam) comes from a Nazi doctor called Robert Hofstaetter. The colposcope, the instrument used to this day to magnify the cervix during cancer screening was invented by a Nazi war criminal, Hans Himselmann. Another nazi doctor initiated “cancer awareness months”, where women would be urged via media campaigns to submit to annual (women over 30) cancer screenings. Cancer fear was deemed being “a special weakness of the female sex” so the whole scheme was supposed to be for the good of womenfolk, but of course the first and foremost concern was to secure healthy, strong wombs to give birth to a healthy, strong Aryan nation.This militant checking of women’s reproductive organs unfortunately still continues to present-day Germany, but according to an article published in the May 2015 issue of the British Medical Journal (“Germany aims to stop nudging the public on screening”) hopefully not for long. (http://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h2175)
More on the Origins of Non-Consensual Medicine
A similar case from the USA would involve the story of the HeLa cells. HeLa is the first immortalized (which means it can be sustained and reproduced infinitely) and most widely used human cell line for all kinds of scientific inquiry. While other immortalized lines are now available, HeLa was the first one, and up to date it is referred to in more than 74,000 scientific publications.
HeLa cells have been used to explore the complex processes involved in the life cycle of cells, as the foundation for vaccine development, understanding viruses and other infections, and devising new medical techniques, such as IVF. However, there is a major problem with HeLa: the original cell sample was obtained without the consent of Henrietta Lacks during a biopsy for cervical cancer at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital. Lacks was black, poor, and a mother of 5 children, the first of whom she had at 14. She died shortly after the biopsy in the “coloured” ward of the John Hopkins Hospital. In 2013 German scientists sequenced the genome of a HeLa cell line and published the data, which has the potential to reveal confidential information about the living relatives of Lacks. After protest from the Lacks family, scientists, bioethicists, and many others, the HeLa genome sequence was removed from a public database.The cell line has generated millions in revenue, but the family of Henrietta Lacks has still not received any whatsoever financial compensation. From 2013 researcher requests concerning the HeLa cells will be reviewed by a 6 member panel, including two family members, and Henrietta Lacks is to receive an acknowledgement in the publications using her cells. In 2010 a memorial has been erected in a cemetery in Virginia, where Henrietta Lacks lay in an unmarked grave.
The Founding Father of Gynecology Leaves a Painful Legacy
Another case in the USA involving unwilling black medical subject matters, where no whatsoever official retribution has been done concerns the case of Marion Sims, slaveholder and “founding father of gynecology”. He still has 3 statues, one in New York, one in Alabama, and one in South Carolina, which proclaims:
Where the love of man is
There also is love of the art
Sims’ research subjects were slaves whom he bought for the purpose. He used no anesthesia, as he believed black people have a more primitive physiology, with a naturally lower pain threshold. One woman, Anarcha, had to endure more than 30 of such surgeries on her vagina, as Sims used her to develop a surgical technique to repair vaginal fistula.
The reasoning of Sims towards his contemporaries, to justify his experiments was that his research subjects suffered terribly (and let’s remember the old southerners theory of the lower pain threshold) Sure the women suffered terribly, but more from their living conditions than the fistula. The vaginal fistula in itself is not a fatal condition(slavery has caused way more deaths than vaginal fistulas!) and in some rare cases certain kinds and degrees of fistulas even heal on their own.
Petra Kuppers has carried out detailed research into the history of Anarcha http://www-personal.umich.edu/~petra/anarcha.htm and Sims, and she has initiated the Anarcha project, which is described on its homepage as below:
“The Anarcha Project is a collaborative performance project that evokes haunting memories of three Alabama slave women who in the 1840s persevered through years of medical experimentation at the hands of J. Marion Sims, “the father of gynecology.”
We resurrect the memories of Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy through performance material developed out of two years of archival research as well as live and on-line workshops with hundreds of writers, artists, performers, activists, academics, and students. The workshop participants’ responded to these women’s stories with remembrances both imagined and real.
With its infusion of dance, spoken-work poetry, theatre, music, and projected images, The Anarcha Project celebrates folkloric healing practices, explores ethical relationships to history, and interrogates the on-going abuse of marginalized people in health care practices today.”
The Cost of Challenging Sims’ Legacy
Other artists remembering Anarcha are a collective, who produced the website http://abortourism.com/, which has a page dedicated to Anarcha, depicting the Sims statue replaced with that of Anarcha http://en.abortourism.com/in-memoriam-anarcha/. The Hungarians share the cheerful news release through the clearly made-up sounding entity “CERJA” – and one can’t help but shudder at the thought of the southern slaveholders legacy reaching so far.
They have said over an email correspondence “it is not that we particularly wish to see a statue of Anarcha, we wish to see the statue of Sims go. She did not volunteer, to “contribute to science” or whatever, but violence was done to her, and in portraying her as an active agent, we would further perpetuate the violence. The point of the stunt fits along the aim of our website- to make women realize they are not inherently weak and diseased, but constantly violated. Anarcha was test subject number one, and there are countless other test subjects, women are still not afforded agency and dignity when it comes to reproductive medicine.”
In their native Hungary it is illegal to ‘promote abortion’, so they are left with ‘tactical media’, such as the map of reproductive rights around Europe, or rather, the map of absurdities- how come in Denmark or Luxembourg women need 17 kinds of prenatal tests, and the Slovakians 35 kinds? Their package referring to Luton (a town near London, with a large no-frills airport) excitedly chirps about how since the limit for abortion on demand is 24 weeks in the UK, so you have time to work a few weeks in the Luton Amazon warehouse, should you be short of funds. There are photos of desolate bus stations, lonely, dirty highways, gloom, doom, struggle- the reality of being female under the patriarchy is not made of pink and fluff and makeup and cupcakes.
In Indonesia when girls are forced to undergo virginity tests (doctors inserting things into healthy vaginas without any medical reason) there is a global outrage, but in Germany and the USA women are still encouraged to submit to dangerous, useless well-woman exams and cancer screening (doctors inserting things into healthy vaginas without any medical reason), in fact they are often denied contraception if they don’t do so.
Current Attitudes Reflect the Past, Foster Abuse
The legacy of Sims and the Nazi doctors is far reaching, from the cradle to the grave it is part of the industry turning girls into women. To quote one German magazine aimed at teenagers “du bist normal” you are normal, but don’t you want a doctor to affirm your normality? The German teenagers on online message boards talk among each other ( invoking the famous quote of Simone de Beauvoir) “you don’t become a woman unless you have been to a gynecologist”.
I should add here a quick remark: Obviously the routine surveillance of healthy female bodies (regardless of age) has no whatsoever scientific basis, see here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/06/30/pelvic_exam_study_annual_well_woman_exams_have_no_medical_basis.html
Within contemporary feminism gender is increasingly privileged over sex, and so-called identity is worshiped, as if some Harry-Potter-make-believe-word-magic, or whatever complex performativity and intersectionality theories became would adequately describe the lived experience of women, who in fact were persecuted, abused and exploited thorough history based on their reproductive capacities, not on their “feminine side” or any manifestation of self-identification. (explained here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/stephanie-davies/feminism-can-we-put-women-back-at-centre_b_7459090.html)
Meanwhile, the statues of Sims still stand, and his legacy still lives on. The difference is now that the victims are not chained or handcuffed anymore, but thoroughly groomed, brainwashed, gendered to accept medical surveillance. In fact being a good, cooperative subject of surveillance becomes a matter of identity, the identity of “mature, responsible women”, and identity is sacrosanct, since in order to fit with mainstream feminist doctrines, we all have to adapt to the guilt ridden, middle class, liberal Anglo-american worldview. Two taboos prevail: “victim blaming”, and identification based on anything else but feelings, and biological sex is not a feeling at all, it is not in one’s head. Body processes and conditions are becoming too risky to mention, as they could be “triggering”. It is often stated how identifying women based on having or not having a female body(call it schemata, plan, figuration, whatever) is so-called biological essentialism which reducing women to the status of walking incubators. These people have no clue that the uterus has functions beyond child bearing (for example it part of the endocrine system, it is involved in a woman’s orgasm, in distributing the blood supply of the pelvic organs) so it is in fact them who resort to the patriarchal rhetoric of the reproductive-organs-as-separated-units, as if they were not parts of individual women, but a distributed pool of biopolitical reserve.
The general lack of awareness of the medical establishment’s ongoing abuse of women is a complex phenomena. Vested interests and profiteering clearly play a role, but ideology seems to be the main enabler, the docile, neoliberal citizen internalizing misogyny and enacting self-regulation and self-management.
In my opinion women would not want to admit they were sexually assaulted and even paid for the privilege, the truth would be too much, the sheer amount of violence faced by women is often much to bear, it is easier to believe the world is a just, fair place, where your interests count, you are cared for, and as long as you do the right things, nothing and no one is going to hurt you. Perpetuating this line of thinking is easier than organizing and carrying out acts of civil disobedience or direct action.