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“I Don’t Have Very Much Faith in Doctors”: Black Women, Reproductive Health, and Black Disability Politics

“I Don’t Have Very Much Faith in Doctors”: Black Women, Reproductive Health, and Black Disability Politics

In January 2022, my Instagram feed was flooded with posts mourning Aubrion Rogers, a 30-year-old Black woman who died after her endometriosis went untreated for years. When she was rushed to emergency surgery, doctors removed a burst right ovary, appendix, endometriosis, and fibroids. In 2021, she shared on Facebook: “At what point will my situation be considered an emergency?” Though Rogers died in 2022, her story felt like it belonged in the Black Panther newspaper, a source that privileged the stories of Black people and indicted the healthcare system for its inability to “serve the people body and soul.” Panther Lula Hudson was one woman’s story detailed in the Black Panther, highlighting the medical racism she experienced in response to her pelvic pain. Hudson’s story demonstrates what disability scholar Sami Schalk defines as Black disability politics, “disability politics that are articulated (in text, speech, political platforms, and ideologies) or enacted (in activism, organizing, lobbying, art, and interpersonal dynamics) by Black cultural workers.”

A young Black woman with glasses standing behind a young Black man in a suit. The photo of them is surrounded by yellow flowers. Text reads "Aubrion Rogers” and “Our deepest sympathies go out to the entire Rogers family.” Text at the top reads “Rest in Peace #endosis.”
@endo_black’s Instagram post honoring Aubrion Rogers (left) and her husband, Anthony Fidelis Rogers (right).

In March 1972, six years into the Black Panther Party’s existence and shortly before its centralization in Oakland, the Party updated its Ten Point Platform to include Point 6: “We want completely free health care for all Black and oppressed people.” This change marked the solidification of the Party’s health politics, which included free health clinics, a free ambulance service, free sickle cell anemia testing, participation in the 504 Sit-Ins, and challenging the creation of UCLA’s Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence.[1]

The Party also engaged with issues of reproductive rights and family planning in the early 1970s, as more Panther families were having children. Panther women were at the forefront of these conversations, which were shaped by larger discussions of the women’s health movement, the Party’s communal structure, historical associations between birth control and Black genocide, and children’s role in the future of the Party.[2]

Lula “Smokey” Hudson began her organizing in Baltimore in 1969. She eventually followed the Party to Oakland during its centralization and worked with the Party’s legal services.[3] A July 15, 1972 article in the Black Panther recounts Hudson’s experience with medical racism and hospitalization for lower abdominal pain. Her words stand as the article’s headline: “They Told Me I Had to Be Sterilized or Die,” with the subheadline, “Racist Doctors Try to Give Black Panther Party Comrade Genocidal Hysterectomy.” The article invokes several key features of Schalk’s Black disability politics.

Although not naming gender or sexism, the article takes an intersectional approach, foregrounding Hudson’s positionality as a Black woman. The Party’s rhetoric in the early 1970s was influenced by the Black nationalist belief that birth control was genocidal, a tool of the state to exterminate Black people.[4] By invoking “genocidal” in the article’s title, the Party historicized and contextualized  Hudson’s experience within the history of forced sterilization on Black communities, a key feature of Schalk’s Black disability politics. Simultaneously, the Party viewed Panther children as proof of the Black community’s survival and as autonomous actors with a role in the revolutionary struggle. Thus, any state attempt to curb the growth of the Black community, whether through police violence or genocidal birth control, was a threat to the Party’s future.

The article further contextualizes Hudson’s experience at Moffitt Hospital, a University of California teaching hospital in San Francisco. The Panthers describe the hospital as “an experimental haven for ‘Dr. Frankenstein’ personalities who don’t mind testing their theories on Black and oppressed people.” At the end of the article, Hudson speaks in her own words: “I was going to be used so that they could observe.” The Party historicized Hudson’s experience, linking her experience with ways medicine has historically relied on Black communities to advance medical research. Schalk cites examples of this medical experimentation, including Dr. Marion Sims’s development of gynecological methods on enslaved women, the use of poor and racialized committees as “living educational tools at teaching hospitals” (like Hudson), and the use of Black bodies as cadavers in medical schools.[5]

In Hudson’s story, the Party employed a key characteristic of their health politics: political diagnoses of medical cases in their newspaper. Politically diagnosing medical cases was a tactic the Party borrowed from the revolutionary psychiatrist and political philosopher, Frantz Fanon. Fanon detailed medical case histories from the Algerian war in The Wretched of the Earth, “diagnosing” disease and illness as deriving from social or political rather than biological origins.[6]

Providing a political framing of Panther and Black community members’ health experiences also gave credence to the necessity of the Party’s survival programs in local communities.[7] Through Hudson’s story, the Party demonstrated the importance of its “self-help reproductive health practices.” They taught health cadre and community members how to perform their own examinations, Pap smears, and blood tests in an attempt to privilege the experiences of people’s own bodies, demystify medical authority, and expose the “deficiencies…of the U.S. welfare state.”[8]

A side profile of a young Black woman with glasses and mouth open. There is medical equipment in the background. The photo is in black and white.
Black Panther Lula Hudson in 1972, then twenty-three years old. (Black Panther (Oakland, CA), July 15, 1972, 4-5.)

While taking an intersectional approach, this article focuses on race and is “a classic study in racism and Black genocide.” Initially, a doctor told Hudson her uterus was “retroverted” and bound by scar tissue. The doctor stated that her right tube and ovary were so severely diseased that those organs must be removed “to stop the recurrence of infections.” The following day, a senior doctor concurred and then reversed his decision, claiming he wanted to do an “exploratory surgery.” After the FBI arrived, the doctors rescheduled and then canceled Hudson’s surgery. When Hudson questioned the diagnosis and asked to speak to a supervisor, the doctors claimed a “hysterectomy may not be necessary,” and a pelvic short-wave heat treatment may be the best option.

Historically, Black women like Hudson have been subject to more invasive surgical procedures in response to their pain. Hudson’s fears, and by extension, the Party’s claims of “genocidal hysterectomies,” were not unfounded. Between 1970 and 1980, sterilizations in the U.S. increased from 200,000 to 700,000 cases. Many teaching hospitals were responsible for performing these unnecessary hysterectomies on poor Black women, and they became so routine they were known in the South as “Mississippi appendectomies.”[9]

At the same time, doctors have historically and continue to be more likely to underestimate Black people’s pain because of racist assumptions dating back to slavery, claiming Black people do not feel as much pain as other races. Moreover, Black people are more likely to be accused of drug seeking or have their chronic pain and disease written off as sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A 1976 study found that 40% of Black women who were diagnosed with pelvic inflammatory disease actually had endometriosis. The consequences of medical racism and sexism are not only irreversible but deadly for Black women, as in the case of Aubrion Rogers.

The medical racism and sexism Hudson experienced were compounded by the FBI’s harassment at the hospital. As Hudson describes, “Two members of the FBI were escorted to this room by a member of the staff.” Doctors used the FBI as an excuse to cancel Hudson’s surgery, stating that they “don’t want to get mixed up in the middle of this.” External repression from law enforcement was not uncommon for Panther cadres and had long-lasting effects on their well-being. The threat (and reality) of potentially disabling police violence only amplified the medical surveillance of Black women’s bodies.

In telling Hudson’s story, the Panthers highlighted the dual trauma on body and mind that were (and are) often present for Black people in the medical system, particularly the Party cadre. Schalk stresses that Black disability politics are holistic, because of their focus on the whole bodymind, attending to well-being from physical, psychological, and emotional needs, what the Panthers saw as “serving the people body and soul.”

In the article, Hudson never explicitly identifies herself as disabled. However, the opening describes her history of lower abdominal pain and reproductive infections. As Schalk explains, one feature of Black disability politics is that it is not always based in disability identity. Black people may not claim disability identity, as in the case of Hudson, because disability identity may be contentious. While Hudson may not have identified as disabled, the political diagnosis of her medical experience still grapples with the Party’s health framework, which understood disability alongside and at the intersection of race, gender, class, and geography. Naming the absence of disability identity in Hudson’s case is important because it allows us to recover Black disability politics in Black history we might otherwise overlook because it appears different from white disability politics.

The Panthers’ demand for entirely free healthcare for all Black and oppressed people has never been more prescient. Though experiencing different facets of medical racism and sexism, Hudson and Rogers were both neglected by the U.S. healthcare system which has historically relied on the abuse of Black people to advance medicine. The Panthers emphasized the importance of collective power to liberation, privileging the people’s perspective in that path forward. As the Panthers stated at the end of every article in the pages of the Black Panther, “All power to the people.”

Notes

  1. For more on the Party’s fight against the creation of the Center, see Alondra Nelson, “As American as Cherry Pie: Contesting the Biologization of Violence” in Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011),153-187; and Sami Schalk, “Fighting Psychiatric Abuse: The BPP and the Black Disability Politics of Mental and Carceral Institutions” in Black Disability Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), 48-68.
  2. For more on children and the Black Panther Party’s ideology, see Kiran Garcha, “Children and Childhood in Black Panther Party Thought and Discourse: 1966-1974,” Journal of African American Studies, 23 (2019): 320-334.
  3. Paul Alkebulan, “Woman and the Black Panther Party” in Survival Pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007), 109-110.
  4. Robyn C. Spencer, “Engendering the Black Freedom Struggle: Revolutionary Black Womanhood and the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area, California,” Journal of Women’s History, 20, no. 1 (2008): 90-113.
  5. For more on medical experimentation, see Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Doubleday, 2006); for more on the origins of gynecology, see Deidre Cooper Owens, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017).
  6. Nelson, Body and Soul, 68-9.
  7. Nelson, Body and Soul, 68-9.
  8. Nelson, Body and Soul, 90.
  9. Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Random House, 1997), 90.

Marissa J. Spear is a disabled writer, emerging historian, community health advocate, and program evaluator based in Northwest Arkansas. She received her BA in Health Equity Studies with a minor in Public Health from Goucher College and a Certificate in Professional Achievement in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Journal of Extension, Preventing Chronic Disease, All of Us (the Disability History Association’s peer-reviewed blog), Monstering Mag, and Chronically Lit. In her spare time, she enjoys writing young adult fiction, reading fanfiction, analyzing the quality of public restrooms, diagnosing her friends with chronic pelvic pain, and researching the Baltimore branch of the Black Panther Party. Find links to her work at www.marissaspear.com.