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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Black Women Can’t Breathe

Published on: September 17, 2020
Published in: Hastings Bioethics Forum, Health and Health Care, Racial Justice

Years before George Floyd begged to be released from under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, Barbara Dawson, a 57-year-old Black woman, died begging a police officer, John Tadlock, not to remove her oxygen mask. Her death occurred right outside the Calhoun Liberty Hospital in Blountstown, Florida, shortly before Christmas in 2015.

Just before Officer Tadlock’s arrival, Ms. Dawson arrived at the hospital seeking oxygen. The hospital’s response to Ms. Dawson’s request was to call law enforcement. Photographs show Ms. Dawson slumped next to the police car. A police recording captures the tragic end of Ms. Dawson’s life. Officer Tadlock reprimands Ms. Dawson: “Falling down like this and laying down, that’s not going to stop you from going to jail.”

Ms. Dawson’s life ended on the pavement, feet away from the entrance of the hospital that phoned the police on their patient — because she refused to leave. She lay there nearly 20 minutes before being pronounced dead. It turns out she had a blood clot in her lungs.

In some sense, there is nothing extraordinary about the image of Ms. Dawson, or the interactions of the hospital and officer, which further complicates the deadly exchange. Indeed, the interaction was far too normal: Black women fear for their health and safety when they do not seek care and, troublingly, even when they do.

When I first saw a photo of Ms. Dawson, cloaked in her red church hat and Sunday clothes, it reminded me of the sepia-hued images of southern, Black grandmothers lined up for church. All that seemed normal – just as ordinary as being transported to a hospital in an ambulance, complaining of severe pain, and expecting to receive care. Yet, in the case of Black women, what is common is the fear and risk of being denied appropriate medical services and being turned away.

Officer Tadlock says, “You can either walk out of here peacefully or I can take you out of here.” Ms. Dawson, panting while the officer calmly informs her of those terribly constrained options (notably, neither includes giving her the oxygen she needs), fitfully calls on God. Tadlock then reaches to remove her oxygen mask. “Let’s take this off,” he says. Dawson responds, “You can’t take that off.”

My law students are sometimes confused by how they should relate to this. Officer Tadlock speaks in a calm, almost entreating voice. For many of them, this is not what racism sounds like.

When Ms. Dawson refuses to surrender the oxygen mask, hospital staff gesture to the wall, informing Officer Tadlock that the oxygen supply hose could be disconnected from a port located there. The officer does so; he disconnects the hose. Afterward, Ms. Dawson wails, “Leave me alone, leave me alone … I can’t even breathe … I beg you.” Her options were constrained; there was not much she could do except to beg, in essence, for her life. Within a short while, she would be dead.

Ms. Dawson’s death reveals the troubling ways in which Black women are marginalized again and again, even as they seek medical care. Their health suffers under systemic racism, exacerbated by sexism.

Dire maternal mortality rates bear this out. On a national level, Black women are nearly four times as likely to die as white women due to maternal mortality. At the local level, their death rates compared to white counterparts may be ten or fifteen times as high. Such a system not only snatches women’s lives, but also causes them to suffer in the process.

Indeed, racism in health care, expressed through implicit and explicit biases, is the ultimate form of suffocation. Such racism, often compounded by sexism — not only impedes access, but it stifles the ability to properly advocate for oneself — sometimes, tragically, to a suffocating, deadly effect.

Michele Goodwin is a Chancellor’s Professor at the University of California, Irvine, founding director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy, and a Hastings Center fellow. This post originally ran as part of Understanding the Role of Race in Health, a digital symposium on Bill of Health, the blog of the Petrie-Flom Center at Harvard Law School. Twitter: @michelebgoodwin.

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  1. Marion Bergman on

    This account is clearly far more than what the article calls “marginalizing” black women.
    It is nothing less than dehumanizing
    We should call it what it is…
    How could this woman have been a threat to anyone?
    Reminds me of the prelude to the Rwanda Genocide where the Hutus referred to the Tutsis as cockroaches….
    I feel we need stronger language as the word “marginalizing” is clearly not working….

    Reply
    • Michele Goodwin on

      Thank you for engaging with this article. I agree with you. Ms. Dawson was treated in an entirely dehumanizing way. I recall Dr. King’s statement in 1966 that “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

      Reply
  2. Kim Adcock on

    As a physician, I am shocked by this account. I suppose I give the police more margin for error based on their level of education/training and the milieu in which they work, but for an emergency department to turn away an acutely symptomatic person at the doorstep is not only illegal in the state of Florida, but morally reprehensible. One can only hope that the hospital was sanctioned and the individual(s) involved discharged and had license(s) revoked. I would happily assist Ms. Dawson’s survivor(s) pursue a wrongful death suit; it seems that one consistent antidote to this kind of egregious behavior is the threat of significant financial penalty, and, as portrayed, this is a patent case of malfeasance.

    Reply
    • Michele Goodwin on

      Thank you, Dr. Adcock, for your comment on this article. Ms. Dawson’s family did pursue a wrongful death claim and there has been a settlement.

      When I presented this case at the Cambridge Bioethics Retreat, my international colleagues in attendance were appalled at the arrest of Ms. Dawson, a patient, who simply (and sensibly) sought care in the wake of her inability to breathe. However, an American doctor (from the south) in attendance recalled the normalcy of Black patients being turned away from receiving medical care in the 20th century (primarily before federal civil rights legislation). Indeed Black patients died on the steps of hospitals that refused their admission based on race discrimination. Thank you for engaging with this article.

      Reply
  3. Christine McColeman on

    I completely agree with the previous comment, but there is another layer to this atrocity. It appears this women is seeking healthcare and being denied access. To a point where the police are involved and the hospital staff suggest the officer “ remove her oxygen mask”. This makes everyone involved responsible for this homicide. Why was she denied access? Why did they call the police?

    Reply
  4. Michele Goodwin on

    Christine,
    You raise very important questions that reflect the inhumane experiences that vulnerable patients may and do encounter. Sadly, these experiences are not always reflected in or by news organizations. Ms. Dawson’s case is hardly episodic. That year the hospital in question phoned police more than a dozen times on their patients who sought care.

    Reply

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