Find essays by keyword, title, or author name

The Painful Legacy of J. Marion Sims and the Painful Practice of Planned Parenthood

A few years back I was touring the grounds of the South Carolina State House with a visitor from the North. When we stopped at the monument to former South Carolina Governor and Senator Benjamin Ryan (“Pitchfork Ben”) Tillman, my guest expressed surprise to read that the monument was paid for in part by the Democratic Party.

My guest had heard of Tillman and knew that he was a notorious racist but was unaware that Tillman was a Democrat. I took the opportunity to give a little history lesson, explaining how the Democratic Party was founded to defend the institution of slavery, started a civil war to preserve it, and after losing the war spent the subsequent century doggedly striving to deny equal rights to African-Americans.

This conversation came to mind recently when I heard that there is a movement afoot to remove Ben Tillman’s monument from the State House grounds. As just about everyone knows, in reaction to the horrific Charleston massacre, the Confederate battle-flag that once flew at the Confederate Memorial in front of the State House has finally been removed. And now some are saying that it’s Ben Tillman’s turn.

I’m certainly no fan of Tillman, but I do wonder what would be accomplished by removing his monument. He is part of South Carolina’s history, and a part that (though at times shameful) we would do well not to forget. If only as a reminder that Tillman was a Democrat, it may be a good thing to keep his monument in place.

We can be grateful that overt white racists like Tillman no longer play a prominent role in our public life. But there is another figure from South Carolina’s Democrat-dominated past—likewise honored by a monument on the State House grounds—whose racist legacy is all too alive today.

J. Marion Sims was a surgeon born in Lancasterville, S.C., in 1813, who has been called the father of modern scientific gynecology. Sims’ State House monument honors him as “the first surgeon of the Ages in ministry to women treating alike Empress and slave”—a reference to Sims’ role as surgeon to the Empress Eugénie of France (1863-1866). Sims received numerous honors for his medical work, including a term as president of the American Medical Association (1876-77). Even today, Sims is cited in textbooks for his pioneering treatment of vesicovaginal fistulas.

But there is a dark side to Sims’ medical career: his ground-breaking fistula treatment was developed through experimentation on enslaved African American women—including one on whom he operated (without anesthesia) no less than thirty times. Slavery deprived the women of their right to refuse to be his guinea pigs. Once we admit that another human being can be someone’s “property,” it is a small step to treat her as a means to an end—to “instrumentalize” her, as moral philosophers say. And the racist theory that black people have reduced sensitivity to pain provided a convenient rationalization in case anyone should question the ethics of Sims’ experiments.

I could not help thinking of Sims in light of the recent revelations of Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of fetal body parts. Biomedical researchers and their suppliers in the abortion industry have learned to instrumentalize unborn human infants, treating them as merely a convenient source of tissues. Once the infant has been “sentenced to death” by abortion, it becomes legitimate in the eyes of the abortion provider to arrange her death in such a way as not to damage the tissues most in demand. Abortion dehumanizes its victims just as slavery does.

Still further echoes of J. Marion Sims can be seen in reactions in both the popular and the scientific press to recent attempts at both state and national levels to pass pain-capable unborn child protection laws. “Fetal pain is a lie: How phony science took over the abortion debate,” states a Salon headline. But if one looks at the details in the article, written by Salon’s politics writer, one sees that none of the scientists cited claim that fetal pain is a “lie.” Rather, the only matter subject to scientific debate is a discussion of exactly when fetuses are likely to have a “conscious awareness” of pain.

The issue seems to come down to whether “conscious awareness” of pain is possible at twenty weeks after conception (as most recently proposed laws have assumed) or only at twenty-four weeks after conception or later (as several medical professionals have conjectured). Even if the lawmakers have erred on the side of caution, we’re talking about only a few weeks difference.

Reading the technical literature on the topic of fetal pain, one is struck by a persistent equivocation. For example, in a widely cited review in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers write:

Pain perception requires conscious recognition or awareness of a noxious stimulus. Neither withdrawal reflexes nor hormonal stress responses to invasive procedures prove the existence of fetal pain, because they can be elicited by nonpainful stimuli and occur without conscious cortical processing. Fetal awareness of noxious stimuli requires functional thalamocortical fibers.

Equating awareness of pain with the presence of thalamocortical connections is simply an assumption for which we have no evidence, but once the assumption is made it leads to the conclusion that the unborn child cannot feel  pain before about the twenty-fourth week and may not until the thirtieth  week and therefore he will not suffer from being aborted.

If “conscious recognition or awareness” refers to mental awareness, it is a phenomenon unique (as far as we know) to humans and one that remains elusive to any empirical measurement. Even so, a strict dichotomy between “withdrawal reflexes” and “conscious awareness of pain” does not correspond to our subjective experience. A withdrawal reflex does not imply pain, but it certainly does not preclude pain. For example, touching a hot stove ordinarily provokes both a withdrawal reflex and a conscious awareness of pain.

The origin of the dichotomy between “withdrawal reflexes” and “conscious awareness” seems to lie in veterinary practice. We cannot say whether non-human animals experience anything like “conscious awareness,” and even if they do, they cannot tell us about it. Thus we need to rely on outward evidence to assess pain in animals. Behaviors such as snarling or whining are taken as evidence of conscious awareness of pain in a dog, whereas the mere reflex withdrawal of a paw is not.

But even very early in fetal life, the human fetus is capable of coordinated movements in response to invasive procedures. Even before thalamocortical connections are present, such movements go beyond mere withdrawal reflexes because they are centrally coordinated. Thus, these movements would meet the criteria ordinarily used to identify “conscious pain” in a non-human animal. It is hard to see why unborn humans do not benefit from the same deference accorded a dog.

Then again, it is probably not surprising that those who have no problem with instrumentalizing the unborn are quick to minimize fetal pain. In that respect, today’s abortion advocates are consistent followers of J. Marion Sims. The fact that victims of abortion in the United States are disproportionately African-American serves to complete the parallel. But no, I don’t favor taking down the monument to Sims any more than I favor taking down the monument to Tillman. We need to remember.

Austin L. Hughes is Carolina Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina. The author of over 300 peer-reviewed scientific publications, he is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Joseph McDonald

    Christians of all persuasions (and non Christians as well) need to hear, persistently, highly trained and professional voices such as that of Dr. Hughes. Philosophers, philosophical ethicists, theologians are important, of course. But men and women who can address the essential “physicality” of the human being, with insight and authority, are more likely to be listened to (to the extent anyone is listened to today, when his voice disagrees with one’s own) than those who deal with the unseen and the non corporeal. Philosophy and theology are very important and help make sense of what we observe and experience, but, we have to observe and experience created physical phenomena (and trust the senses which are as much an integral part of our humanness as that dimension of it we call our souls) before we can make sense of them.

  • Catherine Wittel

    This theory required the author to create quite a long and convoluted thread to connect abortion-rights advocates and J. Marion Sims. I get the philosophical musings, but the intent was to bring the reader to a place where we all agree on the wrongness of torturing enslaved women and then attempt to parallel that with abortion rights advocates. It seemed to me the connection was weak, but did appeal to the reader on an emotional level.