The Dehumanizing Loss of Autonomy

In 1961 Fannie Lou Hamer went into the hospital to get a tumor removed, she left unaware, that she had been given “a Mississippi appendectomy” without her consent (Medical Apartheid pg. 109.) The loss of autonomy in situations like this were not uncommon during the 20th century when the eugenics movement was on the horizon. During this movement people who were of a specific “racial hygiene” as well as the poor, feeble-minded, and uneducated (Medical Apartheid pg. 191) were sterilized without their consent in hopes to lower the amount of children born with bad genetic profiles. As a result black women were disproportionately forced to undergo either temporary or permanent sterilization. By 1941, 70,000 to 100,000 Americans had faced forced sterilization, long before the same would happen to Fannie (Medical Apartheid pg. 203). This loss of autonomy meant not only the loss of generations, but also a loss of identity to those who wanted to be mothers. The lack of any consent at all meant many women lost the right to choice over what happened to their body. This act dehumanized them by making it so they were not offered the same protections as other’s of different classes and races, making it seem as if they did not deserve the protection informed consent offered other people.

Yet, this was not an isolated moment in the medical community. Between 1944 and 1945 the AEC supported more than 2,000 experiments involving the use of human subjects to test the effects and nature of radiation (Medical Apartheid pg 218). Many of these experiments involved a lack of informed consent and therefore a loss of autonomy. Take the case of Ebb Cade who had large doses of plutonium-239 into his body after surviving a deadly car accident. Unexpectedly, Cade survived but because of this he had some of his teeth pulled, chips of his bones taken, and had to stay longer. Cade never consented to any of this and therefore had no choice in the matter (Medical Apartheid pgs. 216-217). This loss of autonomy once more dehumanized people by leaving them with no control over what happens to their body. 

The idea of having a lack of autonomy arises in Octavia E. Butler’s book Clay’s Ark. In this story a doctor by the name of Blake, along with his two daughters Rane and Kiera are kidnapped and exposed to a disease without their consent. Without being told what exactly could happen to them, they are separated and infected. This, especially in the case of Blake and Rane is explicitly the opposite of what they wanted. Blake protests what is going to happen to him, and is continually looking for a way to cure the disease. This is seen in Blake’s thinking, “He had to find something he could use against them.” (pg. 495), or in how Blake uses his doctor’s bag to examine Meda, hoping to find out more about the disease. However Meda “permitted him to examine her” (pg. 495), despite the fact that Blake did not permit to being infected. This shows that Meda understands the idea of consent, but ignores it when Blake refuses to give it. Butler is giving commentary on how consent can be taken from people when others believe they have something to gain from exploiting that lack of consent. In Meda’s case they gain more people in their community and quiet the compulsion to spread their disease. In the cases in Medical Apartheid the exploitation of people was due to racist beliefs and the idea of furthering medical advancements. Yet, the results remain the same, by taking away one’s bodily autonomy one is dehumanized and stripped of being able to make the right choice for themselves. The act of dehumanizing someone also allows for the precedent to come into place where people are easily cast aside, as dehumanizing becomes an age old practice. As Eli and Meda kidnap more people and their community grows, it encourages the practice. The same thing happens when doctors are found to be justified when doing sterilizations or experiments without a person’s consent.

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