The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 100,000 women develop obstetric fistulas annually. Vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistulas are debilitating complications of obstructed labor resulting in the continuous flow of urine and/or feces, damaged pubic bones, lower extremity contractures, recurrent infections, shame, and social isolation. The surgical repair of vesicovaginal fistulas today is only possible because of the sacrifices of Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey nearly 200 years ago.
Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey were enslaved women suffering from obstetric fistulas whose owners gave them to a surgeon, Dr. J. Marion Sims, for experimental attempts at repair. The early surgeries were unsuccessful and caused significant pain. The surgical technique was finally perfected after thirty procedures on Anarcha. We do not have first-hand accounts from Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey about whether their obstetric fistulas were so debilitating that they willingly underwent multiple surgeries without anesthesia. However, we do know that, as property, they could not freely give or revoke consent. We can also surmise that it was not by happenstance that this surgery was perfected on the bodies of enslaved black women rather than free white women.
This award is named in honor of Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey whose sacrifices continue to improve the lives of women around the world. Yet, we acknowledge that they did not have full agency over their bodies and did not consent to their role as the Mothers of Modern Gynecology.
We remember Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey as our patients entrust us with their consent to enroll in research studies. Let us vow to engage in ethical, patient-centered, innovative research that improves the health of all women through the L.A.B. Award.
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