The history of reproductive health care in the U.S. is fraught with racism, as white women’s reproductive health care access came at the cost of black and brown women’s lives. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a known eugenicist; the earliest forms of birth control were tested on Puerto Rican women, and black slaves were routinely purchased or rented by medical professionals to be tested on.
Now, a group of black women is calling for the removal of a statue in New York City that represents this dark history.
The Black Youth Project 100, an activist group founded in 2013, staged a protest against the statue of J. Marion Sims outside the New York Academy of Medicine on August 19. They photographed their protest in a now-viral Facebook post in which they explain the reason they are calling for the statue’s removal.
“J. Marion Sims was a gynecologist in the 1800s who purchased Black women slaves and used them as guinea pigs for his untested surgical experiments,” they wrote. “He repeatedly performed genital surgery on Black women WITHOUT ANESTHESIA because according to him, ‘Black women don’t feel pain.’” (See the striking protest and read the whole post below.)
The protest’s organizer, Seshat Mack, told HuffPost that she and fellow BYP 100 members thought it was important to protest the New York City-based statue, especially as white supremacy is so frequently looked at as a “southern problem.”
“Memorializing white supremacy is an American problem, not just a southern one, and it’s a problem that we need to reckon with as a country,” Mack said.
She also discussed the important relevance of the intersection of black women and reproductive justice.
“We cannot overlook the fact that J. Marion Sims’ discoveries on enslaved black women’s bodies led to the foundation of modern gynecology,” she told HuffPost. And yet, as she points out, black women continue to receive poor reproductive and maternal health care.
“Black women continue to suffer worse health outcomes than white women,” she said. “In the United States, black women are still two-to-six times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. The institution of reproductive health was built on the exploitation of black women, but this very institution continues to underserve black women.”
BYP 100′s call for the statue’s removal comes less than a week after cities across the country removed Confederate statues in the wake of the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va. on August 12. (More and more cities have continued the effort.)
In New York City specifically, Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for a 90-day review of any “hate symbols.” City Councilwoman speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito hopes that Sims’ statue will be included in that analysis.
“It has got to go,” she told the New York Times. “When the panel does its analysis, I think they will come to the same conclusion.”
Mack told HuffPost that the removal of the statue would be a welcome response to her protest, but that the work can’t stop there.
“This is a really cute first step,” she said, of De Blasio’s analysis. “But the next step (and the harder step) is ensuring that removal of these racist, white supremacist statues isn’t simply symbolic.”
Mack cites reparations and a divestment in “systems uphold white supremacy” like the prison industrial complex, as true advancements in the fight for racial justice.
“We want investments in our communities for Black people, including robust mental health facilities, education, childcare, accessible and healthy food, [and] housing.”
CLARIFICATION: This piece has been updated to include comment from the protest’s organizer Seshat Mack.