Our unfortunate ignorance

I may have got a little ranty on The Spinoff’s Facebook page recently, after reading this excerpt from a new book on the “unfortunate experiment” at National Women’s Hospital. To wit:

I appreciate this is an excerpt from the book, but it rings a little callous that the line quoted above is literally from the last paragraph of it. The excerpt humanizes the doctors involved, and doesn’t even mention by name a single one of the women who were literally left to develop cancer due to wilful medical neglect.

Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s 1987 article in Metro gets only half a sentence – “It took the attention of feminists and a media response to highlight the tragedy …”

For people who have no idea what happened at National Women’s Hospital, this article will not be informative, either about the arrogance which led to up to 30 women dying of treatable cancer, or the significant impact it had on the way we think about informed consent and medical ethics. And that’s a shame.

As I say; I know it’s just an excerpt, from a book written by a doctor who had a significant role exposing the unfortunate experiment, with the clear intention of ensuring this horrific chapter in New Zealand’s medical history isn’t whitewashed. Per the Otago University Press statement (pdf) on its publication:

Since that time there have been attempts to cast Green’s work in a more generous light. This rewriting of history has spurred Ron Jones to set the record straight by telling his personal story: a story of the unnecessary suffering of countless women, a story of professional arrogance and misplaced loyalties, and a story of doctors in denial of the truth.

But that’s not what comes through in the foreword, where the doctors who wilfully experimented with women’s lives without their consent are humanized, where Herb Green’s initial work is described as “a major advance for New Zealand women” long before any mention of the fact his later work killed women, which erases a culture of medical superiority and sexism in favour of shrugging, “It’s difficult for an outsider to comprehend how this could have happened”. Fifty words are given to a 1950 FIGO determination on carcinoma-in-situ, and literally none to the names of the women harmed – not even “Ruth”, the central figure of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle’s groundbreaking article, whose determination to access her own medical records blew the lid of the experiment; not even Sandra Coney or Phillida Bunkle themselves – reduced simply to “feminists”.

Suffice it to say, I don’t think The Spinoff have done its readers a good service. And that’s a pity because this book deserves to be publicized. This chapter of our history needs to be better known. We should understand the complex issues and background around medical science, patriarchal arrogance, the dismissal of women’s safety and autonomy, and our understanding of informed consent which impacts people to this day.

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Coney and Bunkle’s article (pdf) was published in 1987. I was three-and-a-half and not really paying attention. But Coney’s subsequent book of the same name was one of the volumes my mother unsuccessfully tried to sequester from the family bookshelves as I reached those dangerous pre-teen years of awkward questions and being able to read a little too far above my age grade.

I picked it because I liked the statue on the front cover (and it was in a cupboard I clearly wasn’t supposed to be able to reach). I didn’t even know what a cervix was. But I knew there was something terribly wrong when one man in a position of power was able to do things to people under his care – to women – without telling them what was happening, or what the risks were. And I learned how hierarchies of power protect their own even when terrible harm has been done, even when it should go against every principle their institution or profession is meant to stand for. How people in societies are sectioned off into groups which are deemed less intelligent or less worthy of information or autonomy – women, people of colour, incarcerated criminals – especially where the advancement of medical science has been concerned.

It’s probably no surprise I turned out to be a feminist who doesn’t go to male GPs and never misses a smear.

We don’t have to demonise the whole medical profession. After all, it was doctors like Ron Jones who exposed the real data from Green’s experiments in 1984, and who are still determined not to let us forget. But we must be aware of the potential for harm when so much trust and power and blind faith is put in the hands of any profession, when laypeople are presumed to have no right to input or information about their own treatment, and when it becomes simply instinctive for institutions to defend their own against criticism. We have to remember our history so we can make sure it never happens again.

Books like this are tremendously important. But there are better ways to tell their stories.

A change underway in local government?

Things feel pretty bleak on the left these days. It seems like the forces of short-sighted self-centered capitalism reign supreme, that darned mainstream media isn’t asking the questions we want them to (and only the questions we want them to), and those blasted voters just aren’t getting the message.

Besides, it’s a local government election year, and literally no one cares about local body politics. Right?

scrubs wrong

Wrong, apparently. The Spinoff, which is basically my main source of news and great TV reviews these days, didn’t just manage to raise $10,000 to do some honest-to-god active campaigning journalism focused on Auckland’s unitary plan, council elections and housing crisis. They raised it in 17 hours. As of typing up this post they’re sitting at over $23,000.

Turns out “the people” do know good media when they see it, and are willing to stump up the cash. I mean, who wouldn’t pay for regular video content of Shamubeel Eaqub calling bullshit on things?

It makes me feel hopeful. Not just that we’ll get solid, in-depth reporting on the future of Auckland for the next few months, but that this can set a tremendous precedent for political engagement and how our media operate – instead of having to rely on clickbait and churn to get those ad impressions up.

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There’s also a change happening in the capital, with the National Party all-but-outright endorsing a mayoral candidate in the Wellington race. National have always had proxy candidates in the capital – Nicola Young, even Nick Leggett if those much-denied only-Whaleoil-seems-to-have-heard-them rumours about his fundraising are true. In Auckland, the Citizens & Ratepayers group or whatever they’re called these days was always deep blue (and Labour and the Greens have taken the same approach in the big city with united brands like City Vision and Future West.) And it’s perfectly understandable for Bill English to say nice things about Jo Coughlan, given they’re in-laws.

But then you look at what English did say – not just “Jo’s a mate and I think she’d be a great mayor”, but quite baldly, “wouldn’t it be nice if you had the right kind of mayor, and then I could give you aaaaaaaaall this money”. You look at the fact that National have unsubtly asked their members for money for her campaign. You see John Key, a man painfully precise about how his image is used (even if we on the left think he makes terrible choices in that regard) posing for a friendly snap with Coughlan at the flash opening of the new David Jones department store:

This isn’t the usual “if you know Wellington politics you know who the Tories are and who the lefties are, even though everyone calls themselves an Independent” variety of partisanship. Though the field is more crowded by the day, and no cups of tea have been publicly consumed, the hopes of the Right to get a friendly mayor into Wellington are clearly pinned on Team Jo.

It may not be the smartest move. Wellington is a pretty solid Labour/Greens town. But it obviously irks the Parliamentary right to have the city council in their own back yard doing silly things like holding onto assets and not building ALL THE ROADS. They have to unite around someone if they’re going to defeat the incumbent mayor (Wade-Brown) and a well-resourced Labour ticket (Lester) on the preferences. So “go, Jo” it is.