DEMOCRACY NOW!: Medical Apartheid goes to Africa (oh, the irony!)

The recently published book, Medical Apartheid, details a fascinating story of forced medical experimentation by establishment doctors of the 19th and 20th centuries on young black men and women.

While the subject matter is not directly related to the issues addressed here, the author, Harriet Washington, draws a strong connection with the spreading of these practices from the United States of the last two centuries to Africa of the 21st century.

While she does not speak specifically of circumcision, she talks a great deal about the drafting of economically disadvantaged populations into medical studies with the promises of payment and other favors, which she postulates is a form of coercion. Clearly, an impoverished populace is far less equipped to resist the temptation to risk one’s health for some alleged betterment of medicine when he’s poorly informed and in material need.

The horrific studies of which she speaks are reminiscent of the Nazi doctors. Obviously, such experimentation has dissipated in North America. But she reminds us in vivid detail that it continues elsewhere under the cover of Western aid and medical missions.

Critics of the HIV/circumcision studies have frequently spoken of the apparent racism in promoting circumcision primarily in Africa where HIV rates are out of control. The primary point is that the West promises much and delivers little in the way of established HIV prevention strategies. So, it has no business getting into the messy business of promoting a difficult and culturally sensitive procedure supported only by controversial studies that are flawed with unaccounted for confounding factors.

On circumcision, the rhetoric treats the problem as a colonial endeavor to assist the natives who allegedly can’t help themselves. Harriet Washington shines a spotlight on the broader issue from the perspective of African Americans to that of Sub-Saharan Africans.

She was interviewed on Democracy Now! on Friday.

Harriet Washington is a medical writer and editor. She is a visiting Scholar at DePaul University School of Law. Previously she was a Fellow in Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School and at Stanford University.


Goodman, Amy and Gonzalez, Juan. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present [segment title]. Democracy Now! January 19, 2007.

About David Wilton

fronterizo, public defender, intactivist, gay
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