The Medical Practice of Consent

The quote from Dionne Brand as the course epigraph, “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice,” made me look at this course from a new perspective. I interpreted this as essentially saying everything that we do is a two-way interaction and should be treated as such. I think this has already been reflected several times in this course already. The primary example of this is the ENGL-101 Life Preserver.

The ENGL-101 Life Preserver has two things for us to pay attention to: “Both/And” and “Consent”. I want to put an emphasis on the consent aspect of the life preserver. We all have heard about consent before, but most of us have only heard it being used in limited contexts. Obviously, we know consent is incredibly important, but there have been countless times where, in various situations, consent has been and still is ignored.

Consent in the medical field seems like it would be a given. You have to give consent before having any kind of medical procedure done, right? Well, throughout history, consent has been ignored, especially when it comes to black people. Whether it be those who were enslaved or not, there has been an abuse of black people through the medical field for centuries.

Marilyn Nelson documents an incident of this in Fortune’s Bones. Through poetry, Nelson describes what happened to this man, Fortune, posthumously. Fortune endured plenty of difficulties during his life, as he was enslaved. His master, Dr. Preserved Porter, specialized in bone setting. After Fortune’s death, Dr. Porter dissected him and kept his bones to use as a tool for studying human anatomy. Fortune was never buried, and his wife and children were never given the opportunity to properly mourn his death. Though it is unknown if this act was consensual, I believe it likely wasn’t and Dr. Porter did this at his own liberty upon Fortune’s death. Nelson talks about what happened from the perspective of Fortune’s wife, Dinah, in “Dinah’s Lament”. In this, she writes about having to clean the room that her husband was dissected in. There is a clear discomfort with what she is forced to deal with in the Porter Home, but she has to do it regardless.  

The bones were kept in the Porter family from Fortune’s death in the late 1700s until 1933 when Dr. Sally Porter Law McGlannan gave Fortune’s bones to Mattatuck Museum. In the 150-200 years that Fortune’s bones were in the Porter family, he lost his name along the way. The Porters renamed him “Larry”. Without his name, Fortune lost his identity. People speculated about who he was, but nobody knew for sure.  

Upon reading this in class, I really started thinkING. Dr. Porter non-consensually used this man after he died for his own benefit. And after passing Fortune’s bones down to his family after he died, he didn’t even bother to pass the incredibly important history of the bones down too.

Personally, I find the disturbing tradition of non-consensual medical practices and procedures to be incredibly selfish on behalf of the doctors and other medical personnel that was preforming them. As Dr. Porter demonstrated, he didn’t dissect Fortune to honor his life in any way. He did this to personally learn more about human anatomy and to ensure that future Porters would be able to do the same. He did this for selfish and often racist reasons. However, this is far from being an isolated event.

In class, Dr. Beth McCoy showed us the first episode of “Race: The Power of an Illusion”. In that episode, it was discussed how through history, black people have been subjected to test after test to see if there was a genetic difference between black people and white people. Despite there being little genetic variation to person to person, regardless of skin color, there were still countless tests and experiments done on African Americans, in particular, to see if there was anything biologically different between black people and white people.

Stories like these are also chronicled in Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington. Even at the very beginning of her book, Washington’s “Introduction” discusses non-consensual medical acts performed on black women in America in the 1800s by Dr. James Marion Sims.

One may think that by writing about stories such as this, that Harriet Washington is against science and medicine and wants to get rid of both entirely because she writes about stories where medical “professionals” have abused their power and taken full advantage of using black people as experimental units essentially. However, this is totally false. Washington is simply documenting how this history of using black people non-consensually in medical practices has led to the iatrophobia (fear of medical professionals) that so many black people face today.

It is crucial to notice and acknowledge how the history of medicine has been incredibly racist. We need to notice the roots and try to change the way we practice medicine now in order to carefully avoid any further actions like the ones mentioned in Fortune’s Bones, Medical Apartheid, and “Race: The Power of an Illusion”.

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