The rape of enslaved women in the era before emancipation had a profound effect on perceptions of black women in America. The exploitation of black women during slavery is the root of a continued devaluation of black women and their bodies in society. Stereotypical images of women were based on the idea that black women were immoral, regardless of the fact that they were powerless against sexual exploitation.1
The devaluation of the black female body is not limited to sexual exploitation, however. As a historically marginalized group, black women have also been subject to exploitation in scientific and medical fields too. Women of color, viewed as the inferior “other”, a group placed outside of the accepted norm, have had their bodies or body parts used for the advancement of science.
The story of Henrietta Lacks is a famous example. In 1951, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During her treatment, slivers of tissue were removed from her cervix and given to Dr. George Gey, a researcher interested in tissue culture. Eventually, those cells became the famous HeLa line, acontinuously growing and widely used cell line that has been instrumental in cancer research, the development of vaccines such as the polio vaccine, and cell research in general. Although those cells have been so useful to scientists, helped save many lives, and launched a multibillion dollar industry in cell culturing, Henrietta had no idea before her death in 1951, and neither did her family until two decades later. At the time, Johns Hopkins’ public wards served predominantly poor African Americans, and it was the common belief of the doctors that “since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment”.2 There were no consent forms required by law for Henrietta to sign to allow the scientists to take pieces of her tissues, and no one in her family was told that her cells were to be kept alive for decades after.
Henrietta’s position as a poor, black female with little education gave the doctors and scientists little reason to think twice about using and exploiting her remains for their research. As her cells were used in labs throughout the world, it is likely that not many people thought about the individual from which they came. Henrietta’s family was deeply affected by her loss, not only because she was greatly loved, but because the loss of their mother would alter her children’s lives for the worse. Her family would continue to live in difficult conditions, not being able to afford health insurance even though strangers far away were profiting from a piece of their relative that was still “alive”.
Henrietta’s story illustrates institutional racism occurring during treatment and afterwards in her family’s lives. Her story shows how scientists might see themselves as privileged to examine the bodies of people considered as inferior, all done in the name of research.
In recent years, scientists have found that fetal tissue has value in therapeutic treatments and could be of value to researchers and pharmaceutical companies. Khiara Bridges examines the consequences that making the sale of fetal tissue by the woman who aborts legal may have, and points out that allowing fetal tissue sale to be an option would have negative ramifications particularly on Black women. The reason for this is that Black women are especially marginalized in the United States, have high poverty rates, and have disproportionally high abortion rates. Historically, Black women have been devalued by society and tend to undervalue themselves as a consequence. This “’internalized oppression’, makes the Black woman more likely than other women to participate in a market in fetal tissue because a woman’s willingness to engage in such a market will be in part related to her vision of herself and her agency”.3 The commodification of fetal tissue further subjugates women because the “commodification of the body forces women to conceptualize themselves as a means to an end –rather than an end in and of itself”.4
From a black feminist perspective, once black women realize the power that they have been denied over their own bodies, they will be better equipped to fight against sexist-racist oppression.5 Regaining control over their bodies has been a concern for the women’s movement in general, and is definitely a primary concern for black feminists.
1. bell hooks. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981), 52-54.
2. Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2009), 30.
3. Khiara M. Bridges. “On the Commodification of the Black Female Body: The Critical Implications of the Alienability of Fetal Tissue”, Columbia Law Review 102(2002):6.
4. Ibid., 12.
5. hooks, Ain’t I a Woman, 74-81.