The U.S. government is once again trying to use people of color for its medical experiments ― and once again, Americans aren’t paying enough attention.
A January report revealed Trump administration members discussed interfering with a young woman of color’s abortion while she was in federal custody. According to VICE News, officials in the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) considered delaying a 17-year-old refugee’s abortion procedure and instead engaging in an experimental method to “reverse” the abortion ― a controversial practice that some anti-abortion advocates have campaigned for.
The VICE report details the case of a young woman from El Salvador who was raped before being detained and then sought an abortion while in federal custody. After obtaining a judicial bypass, as required for minors in the state of Texas, the young woman took the first of two pills used in medical abortion procedures.
This is when government officials discussed interrupting the second part of the medical procedure, according to a deposition that is part of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit on behalf of the detained refugee. In a March 4, 2017, memo, then-acting ORR director Kenneth Tota instructed staff to take the young woman to a local hospital for examination. “If steps can be taken to preserve the life of the [unaccompanied alien child] and her unborn child, those steps should be taken,” Tota wrote.
That very same day, according to VICE, the abortion clinic caring for the 17-year-old received an ORR email inquiring about the various drugs involved in the so-called “abortion reversal” procedure.
Since October 2017, the Trump administration has tried to stop at least four young women ― Jane Does, as they’re anonymously referred to in court documents ― from seeking abortions through court injunctions and by delaying their access to care for several weeks. The January report revealed Scott Lloyd, an anti-abortion advocate and Trump appointee who became director of ORR in March 2017, personally visited one of these women in federal custody to convince her to continue her pregnancy.
In addition, Lloyd “receives a spreadsheet every week containing information on every pregnant teen in ORR’s custody, including the fetus’s gestational age,” according to VICE, and if a young woman in custody seeks an abortion, ORR staff cannot assist in the process in any way unless he authorizes the procedure. Why? Because Lloyd believes allowing young women to access an abortion would force his office to “participate in violence against an innocent life.”
Federal and state governments are essentially offering patients up to the anti-abortion lobby for medical trials.
Eventually, the young refugee from El Salvador was allowed to take the second pill and complete the abortion procedure, but hers isn’t the only case like this. Arkansas, South Dakota and Utah already require abortion providers to inform patients they can halt a medical abortion midway through by receiving progesterone shots; however, there is no evidence-based research to uphold this requirement. There isn’t enough evidence to suggest progesterone treatment is more effective in retaining pregnancy than simply skipping the second pill.
When government officials discuss interfering with a woman’s abortion halfway through the procedure ― and “reversing” the abortion via a medically unsound and experimental practice ― what they’re considering isn’t just unethical. It’s medical experimentation. America already has a dark history of state-sanctioned violence on Black and brown bodies for medical experimentation, particularly on those living in poverty and under government control. And we stood as idly by then as we do now.
The majority of women who undergo abortions are women of color. They are living at or just above the federal poverty level, and they are often already parenting at least one child. These women need medical care, and they are trusting the information their provider gives them is accurate and safe. However, not only are state governments funneling hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to anti-abortion pregnancy centers, they’re now forcing doctors to shuttle their patients to these centers for so-called “abortion reversal” treatments. Our government is preying on an already vulnerable population to win an ideological war, potentially endangering our bodies in the process.
And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen ― far from it. Gynecology was founded on the bodies of enslaved Black women so J. Marion Sims could practice his techniques. Puerto Rican women were left sterilized after researchers used their bodies for birth control testing grounds in the 1950s. Two decades prior, the government intentionally withheld syphilis treatment from unknowing Black men to research the disease’s progression.
Johns Hopkins University currently faces a $1 billion lawsuit for its role in a 1940s U.S. government experiment that infected hundreds of Guatemalans with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid to study the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Poor Black families often turned to the university because of its reputation for offering free health care. Around that same time, Henrietta Lacks sought treatment for a cancerous tumor on her cervix. HeLa cells, as they were later named, were stolen from her cervix and sold off to create vaccines and further biological research around the globe. And just a few years ago, North Carolina issued settlements for forcibly sterilizing 7,600 people, disproportionately Black and female, from 1929 to 1974 due to disability, sexuality or for simply being poor.
Rather than offering families the health care they desperately need, the U.S. government has chosen time and time again to use people of color for experimentation. These past cases of actively withholding health care to vulnerable populations and then offering it up only in exchange for freedom or potential medical experimentation is tantamount to eugenics.
And we can’t ignore the additional irony, here, as the Trump administration talks about forcing the “Janes” to continue pregnancies they don’t want while simultaneously refusing to guarantee the young women’s ability to stay with their would-be American-born children. This has always been the paradox of anti-abortion policies: ignoring the needs and lives of the women who are pregnant.
America already has a dark history of state-sanctioned violence on Black and brown bodies for medical experimentation.
Health care must be founded on evidence-based research, medicine and trust ― not coercion. Sadly, Americans have demonstrated we do not view health care as a human right, nor do we view the bodies of those in custody as autonomous or worthy of protection. Framing Black and brown bodies as disposable allows the government to treat them as nothing more than test subjects for ideological medical experiments with no oversight or accountability. By promoting so-called “abortion reversal,” federal and state governments are essentially offering patients up to the anti-abortion lobby for medical trials.
History has a tendency to repeat itself, so we already know how this story ends. This time, however, we can do something about it. Trump officials are standing in the way of patients’ ability to decide what to do about their own pregnancies and their own bodies, which is an egregious act of government overreach and the very definition of reproductive coercion.
If anti-abortion advocates call for an individual’s “right to life,” they must include those detained by our government for crossing our borders without papers. They are people who have a right to a life without fear of becoming someone’s ideological science experiment. The Janes deserve health care. They deserve freedom. They deserve justice.
Renee Bracey Sherman is a writer and activist. She is a member of Echoing Ida, a Black women’s writing collective, and her writing has been featured in The New York Times and The Guardian.