“Abortion Pill Reversal” Myths and Unethical Medical Experimentation
Recently, Cinnamon wrote about “abortion pill reversal” theories and the emotional damage that they do to women. These myths amount to non-existent science that we are all too familiar with hearing from the right, and they depend on the ability to emotionally manipulate women. The shame, regret, and fear that they breed are just as important to pushing this narrative as the scientifically inaccurate information they spread.
But abortion pill reversal myths are connected to an even deeper history that prevents women from being able to control their reproduction. This is happening in the context of this country’s long, abusive relationship with women of color and reproductive experimentation. If we examine abortion pill reversal campaigns through this lens, it becomes clearer that a struggle for reproductive autonomy is at the center of the story. Bringing this history into view also forces us to confront the racism that has made certain reproductive choices impossible for women of color. In short, acknowledging this history forces us to ask what “choice” actually means.
Perhaps one of the lesser-known examples of gynecological experimentation in U.S. history is J. Marion Sims’ use of three Black enslaved women for medical research on plantations in Alabama. After a long struggle, activists led by Black women finally convinced the city of New York to remove a statue commemorating him from Central Park, but his insidious legacy still stains the medical community.  Sims purchased female slaves specifically for his experiments, and refused pain medicine for every operation. As such, Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey became the subjects of gynecological research that eventually produced technological advancements like the speculum, along with others whose names are unknown and histories are not well-recorded.  Of course, as enslaved women, they were completely unable to consent to these procedures and the environment in which they happened.
Consent should be the foundation on which medical interactions exist; a patient cannot fully grant her permission for a procedure if it hasn’t been explained in its entirety. When women say “yes” to abortion pill reversal, what exactly are they saying yes to? And why don’t the abortion opponents who operate fake clinics tell the women that they are essentially serving as test subjects? It bears repeating that there is no discussion of experiment design or the lack of scientific peer review alongside the “results” and “success rates” frequently shared in promotional materials about the “reversal” regimen.
Abuse of Black women and their reproductive organs continued after slavery and into the present. In the 1960s and 1970s, as talk of abortion took up much of the space in reproductive rights conversations, Black girls and women were being forcibly sterilized in federally funded clinics. Sisters Minnie Lee and Alice Relf were 12 and 14 when they were injected with the experimental Depo-Provera. Fannie Lou Hamer even used “Mississippi appendectomy” as shorthand for what Black women sharecroppers in the state could expect at a simple doctor’s visit. 
These histories run right alongside similar struggles for reproductive control in other communities of color. The Indian Health Service was responsible for the sterilization of thousands of indigenous women in the 1960s and 1970s. Like the experiments on enslaved Black women, these procedures were performed without their full knowledge or consent. They were tied to a genocidal settler colonial project as dwindling numbers facilitated land theft, but importantly, curbing indigenous women’s fertility was also a practice of disrespecting other methods of contraception.  The doctors who performed this violence are not too different from actors we see in the anti-abortion movement today, who work to shutter choice for all but white, middle-class, married women by adding unnecessarily burdensome restrictions, banning public funding for abortion, targeting women of color at anti-abortion fake clinics, and ultimately, closing real clinics down. As Renee Bracey Sherman detailed in a recent opinion piece on the topic, the paradox of anti-abortion policies is that they ignore and in fact work against the needs and lives of pregnant people.
Puerto Rico, too, has a violent history of medical experimentation that has been brought to the States as a reproductive technology. In the 1950s, studies for the birth control pill were administered to unwitting Puerto Rican women. Like other women of color who were medical experiment subjects, they were not fully informed of the experimental nature nor the potency of the drugs administered to them, and thus could not fully consent. The women reported serious side effects like dizziness, nausea, headaches, and vomiting. Despite these warning signs, the head of the research team, a doctor who should have been a trusted resource for his patients, insisted that the pills were safe and the women were overreacting, imploring them to continue taking the pills.  Constantly, these women were told that they did not know what was best for themselves and that they were not smart enough to make choices about their reproductive health.  Recognizing the way that this tactic is still being used in anti-abortion fake clinics is crucial to understanding the deep misogyny and patriarchy that supports these practices. As described in Cinnamon’s other post, pushing myths about regret and amplifying shame that is placed on women – especially women of color – for their reproductive choices goes hand in hand with the idea that we are not smart enough or firm enough in our decision-making to plan our own reproductive lives.
A review of promotional materials for abortion pill reversal shows that white women are usually the face of this procedure, despite the fact that fake clinics heavily target women of color.  It’s important that we are able to place abortion pill reversal within a longer history that denies women power in medical contexts. Even further, we have to recognize that power looks different not just across gender, but race, class, and ethnicity. It is precisely because women of color have been denied choice, autonomy, and the opportunity to consent that we are able to recognize the violence that is happening to women of all colors in anti-abortion fake clinics. Connecting the two reshapes how we understand abortion, reproductive rights, and what it means to put women of color at the center of these conversations, even when our voices and experiences don’t seem to be reflected in the conversation.
The historical trauma and deception leveled against women of color by people who should have been compassionate healthcare providers is exactly why we can now see “abortion pill reversal” for what it is: just another example of people in power using our women’s bodies for experimentation without telling us what’s really going on or what their true motives are.
- Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present and Shatema Threadcraft’s Intimate Justice: The Black Female Body & the Body Politic.
- Chana Kai Lee’s For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer.
- Jane Lawrence’s “The Indian Health Service and the Sterilization of Native American Women.”
- Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, edited by Jael Silliman, Marlene Gerber Fried, Elena Gutiérrez, and Loretta Ross.