Erika Bleyl, LSRJ Summer Intern, (University of Washington School of Law)
My mother was raised in a rural town in Japan, and my father works for an international pharmaceuticals company. Growing up as a child who was frequently ill, I have always been acutely aware of the dichotomy of Western and alternative medicine. So when the current media sparked a dialogue around Purvi Patel and home abortions, I conceptualized this first as an example of how immigrant communities and Western medicine have always clashed.
In the struggle for access to abortions, much of the language has been centered around the goal that abortions in the medical context should be widespread and economically feasible. And I agree – we should be concerned that legal reproductive healthcare continues to become less and less accessible. I am not advocating for the destruction of conventional medicine. However, I am calling for the acknowledgement that a history of racism, sexism, and colonization has shaped Western medicine. I believe that we as RJ advocates need to fight not only to eradicate the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes, but also allow for the availability of a wide range of reproductive healthcare – clinical or not.
First, it is important to realize that it is easy for people with access to great medical professionals to believe that medical clinics are the gold standard for abortion access. While access to clinics is essential, Western medicine has a history of condoning coercive, non-consensual medical procedures that have left people with marginalized identities skeptical of conventional medicine. Western medicine frequently relies on a dichotomy of “normal” versus “pathological” – and as we know, a very narrow subset of people get to be considered “normal” in a world where systemic oppression is alive and well. Medical racism was used to legitimize colonial expansion via Manifest Destiny, and supported slavery through the “science” of phrenology. Medical sexism pathologized women’s sexuality and bodies through diagnoses such as female hysteria. There is scholarship that suggests that the European witch-hunts not only criminalized women’s bodies, but also did so specifically to target folk healers and midwives. So when Western medicine has a history of conducting oppressive medical procedures on primarily the bodies of women of color, poor women, disabled people, and gender variant people, is it surprising when people with these identities are skeptical of conventional medicine?
Furthermore, the Western world’s questioning of the legitimacy of alternative medicine is itself a product of colonization. We see over and over in history that colonizers ridicule and demonize indigenous medicine, only to turn around and capitalize on it (also see: columbusing).
It is not only crucial to anti-racist organizing, but also healthy for the field of science, to resist dialogue where Western medicine is immune to criticism and alternative medicine is, well, alternative.