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Event honors enslaved women subjected to gynecological experiments in Alabama

On a quiet street in Alabama’s capital, Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy stand 15 feet tall, composed of pieces of mixed metal welded together.

They represent the enslaved Black women and girls whom art activist Michelle Browder calls the “Mothers of Gynecology.” These girls and others were involuntarily subjected to painful experimental surgeries, without the use of anesthesia, to advance the tools and techniques that have shaped how reproductive care is provided today.

Yet no memorial bore their names until Browder erected their statues in 2021 with the help of donors, including the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Not far from where they stand in Montgomery, a monument on the state Capitol grounds honors J. Marion Sims, the man known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology.” It’s a designation that could not have been achieved without the forced participation of the enslaved women and girls on whom Sims conducted experimental procedures in Montgomery between 1848 and 1849.

“Every woman who has had a Pap smear has been touched by the legacy of these girls,” Browder said. “But we don’t speak of them.”

To many, the Sims memorial, dedicated in 1939, represents a disregard for both the women who underwent his operations and the history of white supremacist brutality in the United States. Browder, the SPLC and the American Medical Association (AMA) are calling for the relocation of the statue to the nearby site of his former office, where they believe his legacy can be framed in a more proper historical context.

This effort and its historical connection to the inequities in health care that Black women currently face were the focus of a three-day event that ends today. The event, Chart the Course: Changing the Narrative Through Policy & Relocation of J. Marion Sims, was hosted by Browder and sponsored by the SPLC and the AMA.

Today, the final day of the program and the start of Women’s History Month, Browder is inviting members of the public to join her from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Bicentennial Park, only steps away from the state Capitol, to learn more about the effort to relocate the Sims statue and historically contextualize his work.

“The ‘Mothers of Gynecology’ help us all better understand who is deserving of historical recognition and honor,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the SPLC. “This is why the Sims statue must be moved to a place where the true full story can be told. Most importantly, we must honor Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, and their story must be reclaimed to inspire us all to demand an end to the health care inequities that still exist for Black women in this country.”

Inequitable health care

The disparities, particularly in reproductive care, are alarming. Black women in the U.S. are about three times more likely than white women to die from childbirth, even when controlling for factors like education or income, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some studies have found that implicit biases against Black people among physicians have been associated with false notions that these patients have greater tolerance for pain, have thicker skin and feel less pain than white people.

In Alabama, hospital closures and a lack of OB-GYN providers put women and their children at grave risk. In 2022, 25 of the state’s 67 counties lacked access to comprehensive OB-GYN services, while 21 had limited access to maternity care, according to a report published by March of Dimes. Last month, the Alabama Hospital Association warned that at least 25 hospitals are at risk of closure.

Browder hosted the event for the third year to bring renewed attention to this crisis. It provided an opportunity for obstetricians, gynecologists and other medical practitioners to learn about changing the narrative on health care disparities.

“There’s a clarion call to us to do better,” Browder said. “To do that, we have to first see the truth, reckon with it and make sure that we don’t repeat it. The only way to do that is to have an honest conversation.”

Museum and clinic

The site where Sims operated his practice will soon open as a clinical museum and health provider – the first of its kind in the country – known as the Mothers of Gynecology Clinical Museum. Browder plans to transform the space into a teaching clinic for visiting medical students, as well as a place where low income-earning people can seek reproductive care, whether it be from a doctor, midwife or doula.

It’s a far cry from the past, when the office operated as the Negro Women’s Hospital, where plantation owners brought enslaved women who experienced vaginal fistula – a condition that prevented them from bearing children and thereby increasing a plantation owner’s labor force and wealth. Although the condition caused the women pain and incontinence, their well-being was not a consideration in the decision to seek care.

Those looking to support the clinic can visit, where Browder accepts donations and links to a petition supporting the relocation of the Sims monument.

“Memorializing Sims is a way of covering up the history of the enslaved women who he operated on without anesthesia,” said Rivka Maizlish, historian and senior research analyst at the SPLC. “It’s a way of covering up their contributions by pretending that it was the sole achievement of this individual, when in fact his racism and his painful violations of Black women should not be celebrated.”

Photo at top: Michelle Browder’s “Mothers of Gynecology” monument in Montgomery, Alabama, honors the Black women and girls who were subjected to painful experimental surgeries to advance the tools and techniques of reproductive care. (Credit: Hillary Hudson)