Throughout the ages and advancements of medicine, the bodies of those experimented on have been treated with a lack of dignity and respect. From subjecting the unwilling to the very act of dissection after death, something seen as only fitting for the worse criminals (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) to the stealing from the graves, the final resting spot of those who have passed. Many of these bodies were African Americans, almost all were not returned to rest. Instead they were discarded in basements, the doctors done with them much like how a child throws aside a broken toy in favor of a newer one.
The treatment of bodies as toys, as something disposable, can be traced back to the times of slavery. If people are disposable why would there be any different? Slaves were aware of the time of year known as “dissecting season”, the time of year when it was cold enough that bodies were able to stay preserved. “Please God, I hope when I die, it’ll be in the summertime.” remarked an elderly Virginian slave, (Medical Apartheid pg. 131) who was very aware of what would await her body if she passed in the winter. This fear of one’s body being used as a toy, as a means to an end, even after death was not an unfounded fear. In Marilyn Nelson’s Manumission Requiem Fortune’s Bones she writes about an enslaved man named Fortune, who died, and whose body was denied burial. Instead Fortune’s body was dissected and passed through the generations of Porter’s, who followed the family tradition of being a doctor. Sally Porter Law McGlannan recalled playing with Fortune’s skeleton when she was a young girl, (Fortune’s Bones pg. 20). In this case, his body, his bones really were degraded to a toy. Fortune was no longer seen as human, but as a plaything. The basic dignity he was denied well alive, was further denied to him after death.
Author Percival Everett clued readers into these issues in his book Zulus. On page 171 Everett writes “So young, but lucky enough to be lying there in the ground rotting and worm-eaten instead of being forever preserved in some undignified toy vessel.” This is Everett giving his own commentary on the use of bodies being preserved for doctors to prod at, to be kept only as a toy for their research. The bodies of enslaved people and of freemen were taken from graves, stolen and used. To be allowed to stay at rest felt as if it was a rarity and not the norm. Because we know of these injustices, we are to correct them. That meant the making of informed consent, of making sure everyone had bodily integrity, and could decide what happens to their body after death. That also means being respectful of those who do allow their bodies to be used for medical and scientific purposes. No seeing people as a means to an end, no playing with their bodies, no lying to people to gain access to their body. Being honest through informed consent, and making sure we honor the sacrifice of those who lost their bodily rights so the past doesn’t repeat itself is how we move forward.