American Healthcare: A History Untold

Guest blog post written by Mignon Blanc. 

Mignon Blanc in Passion Lile

Just imagine… You are newly pregnant, and you are in the process of planning your birth. Throughout your planning, you ask yourself a multitude of questions: “Should I risk having my baby at home, or should I risk having my baby at a hospital?” “If I go to the hospital, will they believe me if I say I’m in pain?” “If I go to the hospital, will they do all that they can to protect me and my baby?” “If I go to the hospital, what are the chances, I am going to get a physician who looks like me and understands me?” “If I go into this hospital, what are the chances I will come out alive?” Black women are forced to ask these questions every single day, and they are continuously met with disparities in healthcare:

  • Black Women in the United States are more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than women in any other race group. [1]
  • Black women are subject to discrimination in the healthcare field — 22% report discrimination when going to the doctor or clinic. [2]
  • Black patients are 40% less likely to receive medication for acute pain compared to white patients, and 34% less likely to be prescribed opioids. [5]
  • Black women receive a lower quality of care than white women. [3]
  • In the United States, Black babies die at three times the rate of white newborns during their initial hospital stays. But when Black doctors care for Black babies, their mortality rate is cut in half. [4]

These alarming statistics are a clear example that the inequalities that plague this country’s Black and Brown citizens do not just present themselves later in life; instead, they are present starting at the moment of conception. The United States healthcare system was founded on racist practices, and the Black Woman’s plight in reproductive health is just a fraction of the inequalities faced by all minorities in healthcare.

Many medical breakthroughs were founded at the expense of Black Lives. In the early 1800’s when the importation of slaves from overseas was banned, slave owners saw an economic advantage to facilitating domestic slave births. This led to the performance of gynecological examinations and invasive procedures on slaves without consent and anesthesia. This continued to bolster the notion that Black people possessed a higher pain tolerance and literal “thicker skin” than white people. Many women died in this pursuit of medical exploration; however, this led to many gynecological discoveries that impact all women’s lives to this day. [5]

Lack of consent was a common theme in the early days of medical exploration. A prime example of this was the case of Henrietta Lacks, who should aptly be named “The Mother of Modern Medicine”. Henrietta underwent a cervical biopsy and unbeknownst to her, her cells were subject to experimentation and led to many scientific breakthroughs, namely the polio vaccine. [12] Her cells, now known as HeLa cells, are still being used to perform biological studies. She did not give consent and was never given proper recognition for her immense contribution to healthcare.

Mass sterilizations of minority women across the United States is another common occurrence seen throughout American history. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, by a vote of 8 to 1, to uphold a state's right to forcibly sterilize a person considered unfit to procreate. [6] This decision led to the sterilization of over 70,000 Americans in the 20th century. Promiscuous women, differently abled people and the poor were targeted for forced sterilizations; however, African American, Hispanic and Native American women comprised the majority of people who fell victim to forced sterilization. North Carolina implemented one of the most aggressive Eugenics Programs amongst the 32 states that had Eugenics Boards. (Eugenics is the set of beliefs and practices which aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population [7]) The North Carolina Eugenics Board carried out 7,600 sterilizations from 1929 to 1974, and of those 7,600 sterilizations, 5,000 were performed on African Americans even though African Americans only comprised 1% of Carolina’s population. [8]  In the 1970s an estimated 40% of Native American women (60,000-70,000 women) and 10% of Native American men in the United States underwent sterilization by the Indian Health Service. [9]  It was never reported that these individuals were coerced are misled; however, further examination showed that this procedure was recommended as birth control, and the victims were conveniently unaware of the irreversible damage to their reproductive systems. Some women even recounted instances where they were threatened that refusal of the procedure would result in losing their children and/or federal benefits. [9]  

Of all the instances of sterilization in the United States, Latinx women were impacted the most. During the span of the 1930s to the 1970s, nearly one-third of the female population in Puerto Rico [a U.S. Territory] was sterilized. Some women were misinformed and unknowingly consented to this heinous procedure, while others were coerced or even completely unaware of what physicians were doing to their body. Modern day oral contraceptives were derived from clinical trials performed on Puerto Rican women, which ultimately left them with irreversible reproductive damage. By the year 1964, a total of 20,108 people were sterilized in California, making it the largest amount of procedures performed in all the United States. [10] These men and women, who were predominately Mexican and incarcerated, were operated on without full knowledge and consent.

I would like to believe that these healthcare atrocities that besmirch American History are behind us, but sadly they are not. Just last month it was reported that a disproportionate number of hysterectomies were being performed on immigrants in custody at the Irwin County ICE Detention Center in Georgia. [11]  This year’s Coronavirus Pandemic disproportionally devastated minority communities across the U.S. and highlighted minorities’ lack of access to adequate and affordable healthcare. Today minority citizens have an overall worse health status than white Americans and are more susceptible to chronic conditions and diseases.

As a Black Woman in the United States, I can attest to the discrimination that is seen in American Healthcare. I have been shamed and disregarded during a doctor’s visit; my sister, who is differently abled and has federally funded insurance, has experienced varying levels of care based on her socioeconomic status; and my own mother has recalled instances of white doctors dismissing her concerns. America’s flawed healthcare practices have ravaged my family and my community, so I implore you to research America’s true history, so we can rectify the outdated healthcare practices that are costing American lives.

The better future I and so many other Americans dream of can be attainable if we exercise our right to vote. All Americans are deserving of quality healthcare and the means to afford it; this can be accessible by simply casting a vote.  In November when you vote for national and local leaders, please keep in mind the struggles that all Americans are facing, and vote for the people who will have mankind’s best interest at heart. My family and other minorities are counting on you and your vote.

Mignon Blanc

I met Mignon in New Orleans when Passion Lilie was first starting out and I was lucky to have her model for Passion Lilie for several years while she was in school. Mignon now holds a BS in Biology with a minor in Business Administration from Loyola University. Currently she resides in Los Angeles where she works in GE Healthcare’s Commercial Leadership Program.


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