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Historian Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens Uses Her Research to Address Medical Racism

Angela Johnson | February 28, 2022

For centuries, Black women have had a troubled relationship with the healthcare system. Racial disparity, misinformation, and abuse by healthcare providers have fueled generations of mistrust within the Black community. According to a poll by The Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated, only 6 in 10 African Americans trust doctors to do the right thing most of the time compared with 8 in 10 white people. But one woman is working to educate the medical community on the mistakes of the past in hopes of creating a more welcoming environment for women of color in the future. 

Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens is a professor, public speaker, and reproductive health and justice advocate. She is an award-winning historian and the Charles and Linda Wilson Professor in the History of Medicine and Director of the Humanities in Medicine Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In this position, Dr. Cooper Owens is one of two Black women in the entire country running a medical humanities program. She is also the Director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest cultural institution. Her award-winning book, Medical Bondage: Race, Gender and the Origins of American Gynecology, has been adopted as required reading by several medical and nursing schools and doula training programs, including the Mama Glow Professional Doula Training Program.

Her book takes a closer look at the practices of 19th-century physicians, including James Marion Sims, who is considered the “father of modern gynecology” and the inventor of the modern vaginal speculum. Sims and other doctors including John Peter Mettauer and Nathan Bozeman developed groundbreaking gynecological procedures by experimenting on the bodies of enslaved Black women and poor immigrant Irish women. These white male doctors considered Black women to be “superbodies,” who did not experience pain in the same way white women did and subjected them to medical procedures, which led to the development of the C-section, the ovariotomy, the incision into and removal of an ovary, and other invasive practices. Sims performed most of his surgeries on enslaved women without anesthesia, even though anesthesia was widely available at the time, in an eight-person hospital he built in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Not only were these women props to help Sims further his medical research, their reproductive health was also seen as currency to the slaveholders who owned them, according to Vanessa Northington Gamble, a professor at George Washington University. “These women were property. These women could not consent,” she said in an interview with NPR. “[They] also had value to the slaveholders for production and reproduction – how much work they could do in the field, how many enslaved children they could produce.” 

Dr. Cooper Owens first learned of J. Marion Sims’ work as a graduate student. And as she began her research, she realized that Sims was just one of many white doctors committing these medical atrocities against Black women. “So many of these men had access to enslaved bodies by being slave-owners themselves,” she says. “They pioneered gynecological surgery because they had access to bodies that other people owned. It was slavery that pushed that development, unfortunately.” 

With the history of medical harm and the weaponization of contraceptive vaccines and birth control against Black bodies, Cooper Owens believes that her role is to make sure doctors and nurses know as much as possible about the painful events of the past. She serves as a historical consultant with organizations including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the premier professional membership organization for obstetricians and gynecologists. She uses her research to help diversify the medical curriculum that supports culturally competent care for patients, something she believes is long overdue. “So many of the courses [medical providers] take dealing with diversity or equity and inclusion issues tend to be electives, and I’m saying maybe they shouldn’t be,” she says. “Often I’ll give them a list of books beyond the regular medical textbooks for them to read. Mine is really just an educational role.”  

Cooper Owens wants to help medical professionals understand that it is important to recognize their patients’ cultural nuances while treating each one with respect and care. That starts with understanding the heinous acts that occurred in the past, including the Tuskegee Experiment. The study conducted by the government between 1932 and 1972 left a group of African-American men with syphilis untreated and caused more than 100 to die. “We should recognize that certain groups of people might be mistrustful of the medical field, not because they are superstitious and ignorant, but because they have a long history that spans centuries of them being exploited and used,” she says.

Cooper Owens has found that her audience has been relatively amenable to hearing what she has to say, something she believes can lead to an unshackling from the transgressions of the past. “It’s kind of hard to not act upon the harmful and damaging statistics with regards to Black women and Black birthing people. Every school or university where I’ve been called, is in a state that has dismal figures when it comes to the birthing crisis with Black people. So everybody is now jumping on the bandwagon to see how they can turn the tide.” 

For their part, Cooper Owens believes that mothers should feel empowered to advocate for themselves in their doctor’s office. She advises expectant mothers to search online for a list of common questions for doctors during prenatal visits. “You should ask someone you trust who is not afraid to ask questions to go with you, even if they are on the phone,” she says. She adds that expectant mothers should explore doulas and midwives as options, if possible. 

Despite all of the challenges, Cooper Owens remains hopeful. She believes that decades of advocacy are finally beginning to bear fruit. As hospitals begin to partner with doula organizations and more women of color choose to become midwives and doulas, she believes that Black women will have more allies in the birthing space. But one of the biggest steps forward, Cooper Owens believes, occurred in April 2021 when the CDC declared racism a medical emergency. She believes this acknowledgment by the government is a sign that conditions will improve. “COVID-19 was the great mirror,” she says. “It revealed medical racism in ways that hospitals, doctors, and public health officials could not deny.”

Nearly five years after the release, Cooper Owens continues to give talks on Medical Bondage as more universities, medical schools, and medical organizations are interested in her work. “I’m not an activist, but I do advocate for reproductive justice issues,” she says. “I kind of stay in my lane as an educator.” She admits that doing work that covers the intersection of race, gender, medicine, and slavery can be emotionally draining. “I write about enslaved people, so for the most part, the only happy ending is when slavery ends,” she says. 

But Cooper Owens believes that the subject of her latest project had a lot more wins in her life. She recently published an article for Ms Magazine about Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and political activist, and herbalist, who despite her disabilities, served as a Union Army spy, rescued slaves, and advocated for women’s suffrage. “She proved what a real democracy could look like if we use the ways Black women center love, care, nurturing, and institution building,” she says.

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