Denese Shervington, MD, MPH

Addressing Race and Class in America

Reproductive health and mental health are irrevocably linked, according to Dr. Denese Shervington, a Regional Medical Director with the Louisiana Office of Mental Health and a former Board member of PRCH. “How you think, feel or express your sexuality is a part of your overall personality structure and deeply embedded within the psyche,” she says. “The better you feel about yourself and your overall relationship to the external world, the more likely it is that you make choices that support your overall wellness and optimize your physical health.”

Prior to her position with the Louisiana Office of Mental Health, Dr. Shervington served under President Clinton as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Population Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, advising the U.S. Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Health on matters related to domestic family planning services and population research, and directing the national Title X and XX Programs. “I believe that the political and religious environment today is not very caring or supportive of women; in fact, one could say that it is downright hostile,” Dr. Shervington says. “In order for the global village of women to maximize our collective strength and challenge what is sure to be a difficult four years, it is imperative that we address race and class issues, ones that still divide and weaken us.”

As co-founder and Chairperson of the Board of the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, Dr. Shervington believes that physicians must fully understand the complex factors surrounding reproductive health, especially those related to the experiences of women of color. “In order to understand the perspective of African American advocates and activists on reproductive health and rights matters, for example, you have to factor our history of slavery and the ongoing structural racism into the equation,” she says. “During slavery, population policies were pro-natalist and played an important role in the master-slave dynamic: slave masters bred slaves because they needed large numbers; our fertility was encouraged and forced because it directly translated into economic and market value. This is totally opposite to the situation nowadays, in which African American women, especially poor ones, are seen as a social and economic burden. So now we have population policies that are anti-natalist and punitive. The bottom line is that in each case, our fertility has been controlled and manipulated.”

Dr. Shervington, who received her medical degree from New York University, completed her residency in Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco and received a Masters of Public Health in Population Studies and Family Planning from Tulane University, believes that medical students should think about their own biases when making the decision of whether to go into reproductive health. “You must go through a process of self-analysis,” she says. “Personal issues should be thoroughly examined before choosing a discipline.”

And when it comes to physicians being reluctant to take on an activist role, Dr. Shervington is adamant: “If we are serious about the gift we have as physicians, if we really want to see ourselves as healers, then we have to take a bio-psychosocial approach to individuals and the systems in which they live. We should be involved in the issues that are socially just and that promote healing,” she says. “Physicians have a duty to support human rights, including the rights of reproductive autonomy.”

“I do not believe in a harsh, punitive God that’s ready to get me when I make a wrong turn,” Dr. Shervington says. “My God is a very warm, loving, kind, non-judgmental and non-egotistical life force that experiences life through me. After spending 48 years trying to figure it all out, this is where I am.”