(WOMENSENEWS)– In the lobby of an emergency room in Vermont, Massachusetts, I signed in, writing my name on a yellow card and scribed the word "MISCARRIAGE." I settled into a hard chair after the receptionist fed me an unnecessarily pitiful look. She looked at me, but she was also looking at a black woman she knew all too well; one whose body could not hold the pressure of bringing another black life into an anti-black world.
I was poked with needles, questioned, accused and picked apart.
In the United States, women of color are put on trial for pregnancy loss; for instance, Purvi Patel, who may face a maximum sentence of 70 years after seeking medical attention, among others.
Beyond racial discomfort, I was read but not examined, pitied but not cared for. I was not warned about an intense pelvic exam that hurled me back to childhood experiences of sexual abuse. I was triggered and ultimately re-traumatized in the clinical space where I expected holistic care.
I sank as images of my repeated molestation flooded my mind on the hospital table, coloring my experience as a survived reproductive body in an oppressive world of medical injustice as blood left me; for hours.
Sexual violence becomes a high-risk factor particularly for black women who have endured sexualized brutality at the hands of both the state and their own community. Medical institutions across America become sites of this violence and public health concerns. Lest we forget, the medical world was built on the wombs of black women.
The impact of sexual violence on black women’s reproductive lives has been widely under-addressed in public health spheres, leading to continued retraumatization and broader reproductive health issues.
Sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before age 18, according to an ongoing study conducted by Black Women’s Blueprint, and the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that for every black woman who reports her rape, 15 do not.
One in six American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. Though these numbers are disproportionately higher for black women, they are not met with trauma-informed care.
Penny Simkin’s book "When Survivors Give Birth" identifies the challenges between clients and caregivers through case studies and expertise on the pervasive lack of attention drawn to trauma-informed ethics of care.
When a black woman walks into a medical institution, her trauma shows up at the door with her. Beyond childbirth, sexual trauma greatly impacts the lives of black women who desire any kind of reproductive health care.
In 13 interviews I conducted with black women in the Metro New York area in 2015, all attested to maltreatment and reproductive injustice toward black female survivors of sexual assault within the walls of public health centers. They were not only reminded of their past histories as survivors, but they experienced another form of sexual violence at the hands of doctors, nurses and other medical staff.
White women and other women of color also face medical injustices. However, black women have a deeply entrenched historical relationship with medical communities that has proven untrustworthy through grotesque experimentation as charted in Harriet Washington’s book "Medical Apartheid."
The story of Arteisha Betts of Clayton, Missouri, illuminates the major issue of reproductive health and sexual trauma induced by medical professionals. When Betts was denied a Cesarean section in 2011 that was originally promised to her due to her baby’s enlarged abdomen, her baby was decapitated by a doctor during a forced vaginal delivery. The baby was severed and dismembered, while most of his body was still in her womb.
This story may conjure images of past "partial-birth abortion" controversies, however, the conservative repro-rights argument is less important here than the ways in which public health spaces continue to neglect and abuse women’s basic human rights.
In fact, black women have long been denied access to safe abortion care even in the event of rape. This horrifying example unearths the brutal realities, not to mention the atrocious infant and maternal mortality rate among black communities. Black children are less likely to celebrate their first birthday than any other child in the United States.
Black women’s encounters with the public health care systems are often sites of sexual trauma and reproductive injustice where they are met with reproductive coercion from forced sterilization to other imposed forms of birth control.
We may desire to argue the issue of black women’s reproductive violence is not the same as sexual violence. It is true they are not synonymous, yet reproductive violence is a form of sexual violence in its lack of consent, brutality and assumed authority over bodily autonomy.
Liberating black women through reproductive justice is one thing. Engaging reproductive justice and trauma-informed care in our medical institutions is another.