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Books You Should Read Right Now

October 26, 2008

I just finished both Dorothy Roberts’s “Killing the Black Body” and Harriet A. Washington’s “Medical Apartheid.” I recommend reading them together, as they complement one another in content. Both texts address medically-focused abuses of black Americans, and are too dense to adequately summarize here, but I’ll list a few of the topics covered by each.

“Killing the Black Body” focuses on reproduction, covering topics such as reproductive control of enslaved women, birth control supporters with eugenic motives, sterilization abuse, coercive and abusive practices surrounding Norplant and injectable contraceptives, the myth of the “crack baby,” popular stereotypes about welfare and poverty, the criminalization of reproduction, surrogacy, new reproductive techniques such as IVF, and ultimately, whose reproduction is values and whose is controlled and discouraged. Roberts’s work reminds us that reproductive rights aren’t just about the right to an abortion – they’re about the right to control one’s own reproduction and to not be subjected to reproductive abuses.

“Medical Apartheid” focuses on abuses in the name of medical research, and covers a history far beyond that of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Subjects include vaccine experimentation on slaves, “father of gynecology” J. Marion Sims’s repeated experimental surgeries for fistula repair on enslaved women without the available anesthetics (and largely without correcting their injuries), the stealing of bodies from black cemeteries for dissection, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, forced sterilization, deliberate experimental exposure to radiation, coercive and dangerous research on prisoners, research targeting children, misrepresentation of sickle cell carriers’ health to discourage reproduction, and government bioterrorism experiments targeting poor, black communities, among others. I can’t tell you how shocking some of this material is, although I must acknowledge that I can be shocked because I have the privilege through race of not being personally affected by the atrocities Washington recounts. I’m always surprised when people haven’t heard of Tuskegee, but this book reminds us that there is so much more to be aware of, and to prevent in the future.

Click on the book title here to find Medical Apartheid and Killing the Black Body at your library. Feel free to come back here and discuss in the comments.

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