Medical Apartheid Goes Viral: African Americans, Historical Bioethics and the Coronavirus

Lecture Summary

Featuring Dr. Harriet Washington

Date: March 15th, 2021

Format: Zoom Webinar (recording not available) 

Sponsored by The Health and Society Program, Bioethics Institute, and African American Studies, with collaboration from Seaver College of Science and Engineering, Office of Intercultural Affairs, Communication Studies, History, Journalism, Sociology, and Women's and Gender Studies.

             Dr. Washington’s lecture focuses on drawing attention to the African American community and its involvement in the world of research and medicine throughout the recent centuries and finally arriving at the current Covid-19 pandemic. She begins by describing the conditions of research during World War Two. The Nazis were condemned by American Doctors for conducting unethical and cruel research under the veil of rapid medical advancement. Centrally, the argument surrounded consent. However, the Nazis criticized the Americans for their hypocrisy concerning the well-documented mistreatment of individuals in their own nation. Dr. Washington states that the mistreatment of African Americans was not among the topics discussed, despite the fact that experimentation of African Americans was considered socially acceptable by American physicians.

             Historically, African Americans were vulnerable to abuse given their status during the period of slavery. Often time they were bought and sold medical research. While this is not openly taught in history and medical classes, Dr. Washington asks that we pay close attention to the various mistreatments that have taken place. The Tuskegee project is readily known and evoked when speaking about ethics involving research on African Americans, however, there are various other major projects that escape the spotlight. Dr. Washington states that it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on this history.

              The mistreatment of African Americans in research was primarily started by the notion that they were mentally inferior to white individuals, but that they compensated in physical fitness. When approaching a sick African American, the physician discussed and made decisions based on the slave owner’s choice. They were not patients; they were bodies that needed to be maintained. Their health was not of utmost importance, but rather their ability to continue working.

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Furthermore, Dr. Washington describes how some diseases were considered to be strictly ‘black’. She describes how this notion persists into modernity with the belief that health conditions like sickle-cell disease, vitamin D deficiency, and now Coronavirus-19 immunity are primarily isolated to African Americans.

            According to Dr. Washington, today’s major ethical problems involve informed consent. She suggests that there is on-going research which is taking advantage of thousands of individuals without their knowledge. Furthermore, Dr. Washington suggests that when new diseases, like Covid-19 appear, arguments begin to center around how African Americans and other minorities responds differently. She states that this claim is motivated by a hidden drive in the medical field to draw a biological distinction between African American and white people. However, she states that the disparity in how minorities are treated in today’s medical context due to the healthcare system is what contributes to the difference in statistics between groups (assuming the data has not been manipulated, which it often is). The policies that are then enacted are enacted on a social status basis, not on risk basis.

            Finally, Dr. Washington describes how fear is a reasonable response when new treatments, specifically vaccines, are introduced to the public. Given the historical issue of informed consent, the use of third world countries in vaccine trials, and data gathered from medical producers for political ends, warrants unease and skepticism. Often times, those in power are able to manipulate and use those in impoverished situations. Thus, it is crucial to note the disparity and attempt to approach medical procedures and testing in such a way that benefits all and does not take advantage of individuals in disadvantaged positions. 

This page was created by Bioethics graduate student Flavius Rusu.

Flavius Rusu is a first-year

graduate student at the Bioethics Institute. He is the Craves Scholar and manages the content for the Bioethics Hub.

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