Sunday, July 22, 2007

Medical Apartheid

...is the title of a book by Harriet Washington, which won the Nonfiction Award from the American Library Association's Black Caucus (BCALA). I sat completely riveted to her presentation on C-Span, which was aired today. Enlightening, disturbing, incredible; an explosion of hidden histories come to light.

My business is herbal medicine, and I have long noticed that southern African-Americans often seem utterly terrified of doctors. Even the most educated class of younger, professional black folks are tremendously skeptical of the medical establishment. The fear/skepticism is an overwhelming factor that has negatively influenced research initiatives, since African-Americans are extremely reluctant to participate in pharmaceutical or other types of studies. Medicines and treatments are being developed without input and data about African-American physiology that would calibrate treatments more specifically and effectively. In her C-Span presentation, Washington stated that various new research projects on Hepatitis C included only a negligible number of black participants, despite concerted efforts to find patients.

Washington's amazing book about medical experimentation on African-Americans, explains and tirelessly documents the reasons for this phenomenon:
Slaves who had become too old or too sick to work supplied the bulk of hospital “clinical material.” They enjoyed no legal rights and could mount no legal challenge to their incarceration and treatment.5 Stillman advertised his desire for blacks who suffered from disorders far beyond his own specialty, such as apoplexy, kidney disease, and stomach, intestinal,bladder, liver, and spleen disorders, as well as scrofula and hypochondriasm. He wished to test new techniques and medications he had formulated on debilitated and chronically unhealthy blacks in the same institution where he treated paying whites. He then marketed the medications and techniques.

Slave owners were glad to rid themselves of old, sick, and unproductive slaves.6 It was a sage bargain on the slave owner’s part, because the hospital took over all or most of the cost of feeding, housing, and treating the unproductive slave. If the slave died, his owner was spared the inconvenience and expense of burying him, because the hospital would retain the body for dissection or experiment. If the slave recovered, the master would once again profit from his or her labor and breeding.

Moreover, the slave owner could lay claim to benevolence; after all, he was sending his old or sick slaves to a hospital for expert care. Free blacks were also vulnerable because they were easily incarcerated in jails and almshouses for a variety of minor infractions of the many regulations governing free African Americans.
(NOTE: As in Robert Jay Lifton's similar book THE NAZI DOCTORS, much of this was harrowing and very difficult to assimilate.)

Washington's presentation included an insightful Q-and-A segment, in which she mentioned the history of extensive medical experimentation IN Africa, as well. Not sure a drug or procedure is safe for human beings in the US? Test it in Africa, and many liability laws do not even apply.

If you'd like to listen to or read Amy Goodman's discussion with Harriet Washington, go here: Democracy Now/Interview with Harriet Washington

3 comments:

belledame222 said...

that does sound harrowing.

you read Lifton too, huh? i have "Destroying the World to Save It," looked at Nazi Doctors in the store but too queasy to take it home.

Daisy said...

It's almost impossible to read, except in segments. Like, a chapter at a time, every few weeks. Any faster reading, and your fundamental faith in human nature will plummet alarmingly.

Dianne said...

Thank you for pointing this book out to me. I had not heard of it before but now will get a copy and read it.

I work in medical research (cancer research in particular)and find myself confronting the echos of this history fairly frequently. For example, many blacks are quite reluctant to be part of clinical trials. Quite understandable, of course, given the history, but unfortunate in that many times there is no good standard treatment and a clinical trial is the only reasonable option. So the echos of Tuskegee and similar history still kills minorities, but now by keeping them from involvement in medical research rather than by killing them with bad research. I've been trying to figure out how to get past this problem, but have largely failed so far. Maybe finding more out about the history will be helpful.