The Historical Lack of Consent

Race has been long thought to be something biological, something that separated people based on their genetics. This idea of a biological backing for race was used to explain racist differences in IQ, sports ability, and in healthcare. Race was used as a way to “scientifically” treat people differently at the social level. This is and was because race is a social construct, the idea of it being a biological difference was only used to justify the process society was using to keep itself divided among those who were a different race. 

The process to dehumanize African Americans has been used as an excuse to hurt them as a means to an end, and as a way to justify using African Americans as test subjects throughput time. Seeing African Americans as “less than human” was a blanket way of not providing any protection to blacks that white people benefited from. These protections included a say over one’s body after death, a say over treatment choice, and a say in being told what that treatment was. In Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington tells the story of Sam, an enslaved man who was forced to undergo surgery for jaw cancer. Sam, who had a fear of surgery, possibly due to the stories and pain that surrounded it, was strapped into a chair to avoid escape. He was then operated on against his will (pages 101-103). This inability to say no would have never been taken from a white man, but as a slave Sam had no say over his body. Sam was not the only one, and this is not the only time that African Americans were not given control of their bodies.

In Georgia, W.H. Robert had amputated the leg of a slave girl. Despite only having a minor injury, he still decided to take the leg from the fifteen-year-old child. Robert than explained to his students that the decision to amputate should be weighed by race and class. Taking a limb from a slave was of little importance, but from a white man, the taking of a limb was truly meant to be a last resort (Medical Apartheid, page 109). Even years after slavery was abolished African Americans were still not given the same medical protections as white Americans. In 1945, Ebb Cade was injected with large doses of plutonium-239 solely because he was believed to be able to survive his injuries after a bad car accident (Medical Apartheid page 216). Then in 1947, Elmer Allen was forced to go to UCSF’s free clinic after breaking his leg. It’s important to note that Allen only went there went out of desperation, despite his fear of what might happen to him there. This process of dehumanizing and treating African Americans as less than human had created a fear of the medical community among blacks. And as Allen would find out, for good reason. Allen would have his broken leg injected with plutonium-238. After three days, his leg would need amputated (Medical Apartheid pages 220-222). These experiments violated the consent standards set by both the Judicial Council of American Medical Association, and the ACE physicians, who were in charge of the experimentation on Allen. The idea of consent being taken away from African Americans was not a new thing, despite the new changes, because consent has historically been taken from African Americans. The long process of dehumanizing African Americans and keeping them from being able to consent made it easier to keep them from understanding informed consent even after it was put in place to try and protect minorities and easily exploited groups of people.

This historical lack of consent shows why informed consent is needed within society today. To be able to make intimate and basic healthcare choices well knowing what the risks and benefits of those choices are is a fundamental part of having control over our own body. Making sure one understands consent, making consent a priority, and working to improve the meaning of informed consent can benefit those who feel they have no choice, or how believe the injustices of the past will repeat themselves. Upholding informed consent is how we keep those injustices from repeating themselves and from helping settle the wrongs done to those who were not protected by informed consent.

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