Killing the Black Body

Yesterday I read a book called Killing the Black Body:  Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, a scholarly study from 1997 by Dorothy Roberts.  It's a book I should have read long ago, for a number of reasons.  First of all, it's incredibly important and often cited.  But I didn't realize that there were even more personal reasons I should have read it.

Here's how it starts:

In 1989, officials in Charleston, South Carolina, initiated a policy of arresting pregnant women whose prenatal tests revealed they were smoking crack.  In some cases, a team of police tracked down expectant mothers in the city's poorest neighborhoods.  In others, officers invaded the maternity ward to haul away patients in handcuffs and leg irons, hours after giving birth.  One woman spent the final weeks of pregnancy detained in a dingy cell in the Charleston County Jail.  When she went into labor, she was transported in chairs to the hospital, and remained shackled to the bed during the entire delivery.  All but one of the four dozen women arrested for prenatal crimes in Charleston were Black.

You know that when you're reading a book called Killing the Black Body, and it starts in the place where you live, that this is a bad, bad sign.

I knew a bit about this horrifying practice, because I would talk about it in my Women's Studies classes at Vanderbilt.  I'd talk about how racism affects reproductive rights, about the ways that racism and sexism intersect, and about how racism and sexism help to create policies that are actually bad for everybody.  I learned a bit more about it once I came to Charleston:  I learned that one of the women whose path crosses mine again and again, Susan Dunn, was one of the attorneys who helped bring this case before the US Supreme Court and get this practice to be recognized as unconstitutional.

What I didn't know until I read Roberts' book is that the Medical University of South Carolina, MUSC, enthusiastically helped to make this racist, sexist policy happen.  In fact, it was their idea.  This makes me sick to my stomach for a number of reasons:
  • I gave birth to my daughter there.  (And I have some stories from that experience that will give you a sense of how they approach patients depending on the class stereotypes they're projecting onto them.  Perhaps I'll blog about some of that at some point.)
  • I've had MRI after MRI there.
  • Maybelle's wonderful speech therapist is there, so we visit an MUSC office once a week.
  • Any other medical care Maybelle needs--like hearing and vision tests--we have performed there.
  • Biffle has gotten ER care from them on multiple occasions.
  • I have good friends who've completed their degrees there.
And they were behind this policy.  I know that good people do shitty things all the time--this seems to be part of being human--but it does make me feel so outraged and exhausted to think of medical professionals treating their patients as sub-human.  Yes, drug use during pregnancy isn't anybody's idea of a good practice.  But is the way to address that problem to yank a newborn away and send the mother to jail?  To chain the mother to a bed while she's delivering?  Apparently the women were given the "option" of drug treatment, but there were no drug treatment centers that treated pregnant women, and the drug treatment that was offered to the new mothers provided no childcare.

I'm going to go email my friends who work at MUSC, as well as Susan Dunn, and find out if MUSC has gone through some sort of serious soul-searching process and made amends for being part of a practice that shat upon black women and their children.


Reagan said...

I get where you are coming from, with the obvious racism and sexism involved in the situation. But I don't agree with the self-righteousness of e-mailing current people at MUSC to hold everyone accountable. To get an update on the situation and what came of it, yes. But don't forget, the women who were smoking crack during pregnancy were the ones who shat on their children.

Anonymous said...

I had a discussion about this case in a public health / bioethics class I took at Very Fancy US University in 2003. Conversation wandered all over the place, but the general consensus (not related to the case itself, but speaks to the topic - there was a lot of "those women" being tossed around) was that it was completely acceptable for a hospital system to drug and HIV test pregnant women without their consent if they presented in the ER for treatment of anything. And then arrest them, and FORCE treatment on to them. BECAUSE OF THE CHILDREN. I was shocked that anyone would think this was acceptable behavior. In fact, it STILL makes me want to cry. I don't know why I continue to be shocked when I bump up against this level of...racist, classist, sexist discussion.

I'm curious if MUSC has changed their policies officially, and if they ever issued an apology? Or if they just let the practice fall to the side. Or, hopefully fall to the side...

Anonymous said...

I imagine the medical workers thought taking crack (actively) was worse than a "bad practice", but homicidal in regard to the child.

One person to talk to is Wallace Bonaparte, though any of the long-time nurses would have all the information, too. Note: most medical workers today are for the decriminalization of drugs. They also have always seen the worst of it, day in day out.

Cindy said...

I'm confused. Isn't it illegal to smoke crack??? Why shouldn't they be arrested?

Alison said...

Ooo, such interesting comments from folks! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions.

Some quick responses:

1) My own self-righteousness and outrage: true enough. In my emails to folks at MUSC, I tried to tone it down a notch.

2) It is illegal to smoke crack.

3) It's also illegal to test someone's blood or urine in a medical setting without their consent, if the purpose is law enforcement. This isn't just illegal; it's unconstitutional (Fourth Amendment).

4) Almost the only people tested were black (one woman was white, but it was noted in her medical chart that her boyfriend was black).

5) A pregnant woman using crack is bad for the fetus, but not as damaging as heavy alcohol use. And some studies have shown pretty definitively that a lot more women drink and smoke marijuana during pregnancy than use crack or powdered cocaine. Also, there's good evidence that cigarette smoking has caused more infant deaths than crack. So why, Dorothy Roberts asks, did MUSC decide to focus on crack?

Anonymous said...

I think back then they really did not know the long term effects of crack. There was the fear of "crack babies" being damaged for life, in particular by the active use of crack at the end stage of pregnancy. We've learned so much since then (such as it being worse to do drugs at the start of a pregnancy).

I'm all for the Supreme Court ruling, and clearly drugs need to be decriminalized because of the racist application of the law (parts of the Len Bias law were recently struck down for just this reason).

But I don't see clinicians as possibly being aware of the more current- and surprising - findings about crack use during pregnancy back then. So I would not want to discount that clinicians likely had concern for these babies, making them less easy to depict as just racist. I also think this might ignore that many of those supportive of the attempt to protect (or really, back then, "save the lives") of these babies might have been persons of color.

krlr said...

So much tragedy, in all corners. I am curious about a couple comments - I suspect crack use was considered more homidal than 'bad practice'. Does the fact that it (apparently? I have no info on this) wasn't as bad as feared give us insight not avail then - in that maybe a little more allowance for people trying to the right thing? If there weren't enough detox/rehab beds... what DO you do? I'm not unsympathetic with the urge to do SOMETHING (for the bay-bees!).

This seems to tie directly back into the pro choice debate about gestational timeframes - it's not ok to dose the kids after birth, why is it less wrong to do so a week earlier in utero? [that's not a pro-life schtick, you know where I stand on that]

Also wondering about the racial aspects - I know there are racial/socioeconomic divisions btwn crack & cocaine use (for example, current efforts to correct disparate rx'd sentencing guidelines, which was fascinating - and was CLEARLY racial) but my impression was crack was more addictive, making it harder for pregnant moms to get off, creating the 'epidemic' of crack babies... you didn't hear about coke babies. Was that because of race/media, or because there weren't as many?

Clearly not my field but very interesting. It actually gives me a little hope to think that we're now moving to drug courts & treatment (because of the economics, not good sense, but I'll take it).