Microaggressions have big impacts for disabled users online

Originally published by Cornell University Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science

By Patricia Waldron

In person, people with disabilities often experience microaggressions – comments or subtle insults based on stereotypes – but similar interactions, as well as new types of microaggressions, play out online as well.

A new study by researchers at Cornell and Michigan State University finds that those constant online slights add up. Interviews revealed that microaggressions affect their self-esteem and change how people with disabilities use social media. Ideally, digital tools will one day reduce the burden for marginalized users, but due to their subtlety, microaggressions can be hard for algorithms to detect.

“This paper brings a new perspective on how social interactions shape what equitable access means online and in the digital world,” said Sharon Heung, a doctoral student in information science. Heung presented the study, “Nothing Micro About It: Examining Ableist Microaggressions on Social Media,” Oct. 26 at ASSETS 2022, the Association for Computing Machinery SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility.

Previously, little was known about online microaggressions. “If you look at the discourse around harms emanating from social media use by communities that are vulnerable, there is almost no work that focuses on people with disabilities,” said co-author Aditya Vashistha, assistant professor of information science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science. “It’s surprising because about one in seven people in the world has a disability.”

When microaggressions occur in live settings, they are often ephemeral, with few bystanders. In contrast, “when they happen on social media platforms, it’s happening in front of a large audience – the scale is completely different,” said Vashistha, “and then they live on, for people to see forever.”

Additionally, social media platforms can amplify microaggressions, potentially spreading misinformation. “Online microaggressions have the ability to shape the understandings of disability for a lot of people who are not even involved in the situation,” said co-author Megh Marathe, assistant professor of media, information, bioethics, and social justice at Michigan State. “We’re very concerned about how it’s shaping the way the broader audience thinks about disability and disabled people.”

Heung and co-author Mahika Phutane, a doctoral student in computer science, interviewed 20 volunteers who self-identified as having various disabilities, and who were active on social media platforms. They asked the participants to describe subtle discrimination and microaggressions they had experienced, and the impact on their lives.

Patronizing comments like, “You’re so inspiring,” were the most common, along with infantilizing posts, like “Oh, you live by yourself?” People also asked inappropriate questions about users’ personal lives and made assumptions about what the person could do or wear based on their disability. Some users were told they were lying about their disability, or that they didn’t have one, especially if that disability was invisible, such as a mental health condition.

The researchers categorized the responses into 12 types of microaggressions. Most fit into categories previously recognized in offline interactions, but two were unique to social media. The first was “ghosting,” or ignored posts. The second was ways that the platform was inaccessible for people with various disabilities. For example, some users said they felt unwelcome when people did not add alt text to photos or used text colors they couldn’t discern. One person with dwarfism said her posts were continually removed because she kept getting flagged as a minor.

After experiencing a microaggression, users had to make the tough choice of how to respond. Regardless of whether they ignored the comment, reported it, or used the opportunity to educate the other person, participants said it took an emotional toll and damaged their self esteem. Many took breaks from social media or limited the information they shared online to protect themselves.

“Addressing this problem is really hard,” said Phutane. “Social media is driven to promote engagement, right? If they educate the perpetrator, then that original post will just get more and more promoted.”

Most social media platforms already have moderation tools, but reporting systems are sometimes flawed, lack transparency, and can misidentify harassment. The participants proposed that platforms should automatically detect and delete microaggressions, or a bot could pop up with information about disabilities. 

However, microaggressions can be hard for automated systems to detect. Unlike hate speech, where algorithms can search for specific words, microaggressions are more nuanced and context-dependent.

Once the scope and types of microaggressions experienced by people from various marginalized groups are better understood, the researchers think tools can be developed to limit the burden of dealing with them. These issues are important to address, especially with the potential expansion of virtual reality and the “metaverse.”

“We need to be especially vigilant and conscious of how these real-world interactions get transferred over to online settings,” said co-author Shiri Azenkot, associate professor of information science at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech and Cornell Bowers CIS. “It’s not just social media interactions – we’re also going to see more interactions in virtual spaces.”

This work was partially supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Patricia Waldron is a writer for the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Demystifying End-of-Life Care

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, and Karen Smith, LMSW, PhD, HEC-C, presented at the October 13 Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering their insight and expertise on the topic “Demystifying End-of-Life Care.” Bioethics for Breakfast is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman. The presentation portion of the session was recorded and is available to watch on our website.

The State of Michigan has recently approved the MI POST (Michigan Physician Order for Scope of Treatment), which allows a patient and physician to have in place directions (orders) on care to go between levels of treatment. Such orders typically specify the kind of care a terminally ill patient would want or refuse in an emergency situation outside a hospital setting. Such orders are agreed to by a competent patient or their representative and the attending physician. A POST document is often part of a larger advance care planning document.

Most patients do not have an advance directive or a POST. What happens when that patient is actively dying and the attending physician believes a Do Not Attempt Resuscitation order (DNAR) is in the best interest of that patient? Should that decision by the physician require the written consent of the patient’s family for that DNAR order? And what are the consequences for the patient if the family cannot reach agreement? If you were that patient, what would you regard as the most reasonable course of action? How would you ensure your wishes are followed?

Presenters Fleck and Smith gave some background on what it means to have a natural death and a managed death, noting that the majority of Americans today die a managed death. Smith explained that durable power of attorney and MI POST are the two state-authorized methods for directing end-of-life wishes. Fleck asked attendees to consider the following questions: Are the policies and practices in place regarding terminally ill incapacitated patients good enough? Are they the best we can do? What might we do better? What do we see as the main deficiencies in current policy and practice?

The presentation also explored how policy can protect patients and prevent suffering at the end of life and presented multiple case examples regarding terminal care in the ICU. Discussion during the Q&A portion focused on family disagreements in the ICU, the value of healthcare literacy and common misconceptions that stem from popular culture, and what happens when the court system is involved with end-of-life decisions.

Related items

About the speakers

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a Professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. Fleck’s interests focus on medical ethics, health care policy, priority-setting and rationing, and reproductive decision-making. He explores the role of community dialogue (rational democratic deliberation) in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies. More recently, he has completed a book-length manuscript that addresses a number of ethical and policy issues related to precision medicine, primarily in a cancer treatment context. He also completed another book that addresses several contemporary issues related to bioethics and religion from a Rawlsian public reason perspective.

Karen Smith, LMSW, PhD, HEC-C, has been a member of hospital ethics committees for over 20 years. She is currently the Director of Ethics Integration for Henry Ford Health, a six-hospital system in metro Detroit. Smith publishes on issues related to clinical ethics the hospital setting. She specializes in death and dying issues and often works to educate the public on Advance Directive issues. She has been on the National Board for the Funeral Consumers Alliance which is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing the public education and advocacy related to after death needs.

Addressing the complex problems of health care justice generated by precision medicine

Bioethics Public Seminar Series green and white icon

The 2022-2023 Bioethics Public Seminar Series begins next month with a webinar from Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, on “Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation.” This virtual event is free to attend and open to all individuals.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022
1:30-2:30 PM EST (UTC−05:00)
Zoom webinar registration: bit.ly/bioethics-fleck

Metastatic cancer and costly precision medicines generate extremely complex problems of health care justice. Targeted cancer therapies yield only very marginal gains in life expectancy for most patients at very great cost, thereby threatening the just allocation of limited health care resources. Philosophic theories of justice cannot address adequately the “wicked” ethical problems associated with these targeted therapies. Following Rawls, Fleck argues for a political conception of health care justice, and a fair and inclusive process of democratic deliberation governed by public reason. The virtue of democratic deliberation is that citizens can fashion autonomously and publicly shared understandings to fairly address the complex problems of health care justice generated by precision medicine. “Wicked” problems can metastasize if rationing decisions are made invisibly. A fair and inclusive process of democratic deliberation can make these “wicked” problems visible, and subject, to fair public reason constraints. What constrained choices do you believe you would endorse with your fellow citizens as being “just enough”?

Leonard M. FLeck

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. Dr. Fleck’s interests focus on medical ethics, health care policy, priority-setting and rationing, and reproductive decision-making. He explores the role of community dialogue (rational democratic deliberation) in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies. More recently, he has completed a book-length manuscript that addresses a number of ethical and policy issues related to precision medicine, primarily in a cancer treatment context. He also completed another book that addresses several contemporary issues related to bioethics and religion from a Rawlsian public reason perspective.

Can’t make it? All webinars are recorded and available in our archive of recorded lectures. To receive reminders before each webinar, please subscribe to our email list.

Leonard Fleck on his new book ‘Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation’

What are we willing to accept as limits on access to very expensive marginally beneficial healthcare in our society?

Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck’s latest book, Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation, is now available from Oxford University Press. Fleck’s work as a philosopher and medical ethicist has focused on health care policy, and the role of community dialogue in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies.

In an interview about this book, Fleck spoke of beginning democratic deliberation work around 1980 as part of a research project regarding changes to the Medicare program. He described the importance of involving members of the community in conversations about what values and considerations should shape the kinds of limits they would be willing to live with in terms of accessing needed healthcare. That project, centered in an Indiana community, shaped his work moving forward. The interview that follows explores the importance of democratic deliberation regarding the use of targeted cancer therapies.

Registration is open for a webinar on November 16 where Fleck will present on this topic.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation red and blue book cover.
Book cover, copyright Oxford University Press.

Who is the ideal audience of this book?

The ideal audience would be a broad segment of the public that needs to be aware of the kinds of challenges, the ethical and public policy challenges, that are associated with precision medicine. Its high cost and its marginal benefit.

How would you broadly define precision medicine?

Typically, precision medicine is defined as providing the right drug at the right time and the right dose for the right medical problem. Right now, mostly what we’re talking about is cancer, that is, metastatic cancer. What we’re talking about are the molecular features of a metastatic cancer that a particular individual has. The drugs that are used to attack that cancer are drugs that are designed for the very, very, very specific molecular features of a particular cancer. Some of those features get to be defined in really sharp terms. Researchers and physicians no longer talk about a stomach cancer or a lung cancer—I mean they they’ll use those terms, but the recognition is that the nature of the cancer, in terms of what we’re going to try to do about it from a therapeutic perspective, that’s going to be determined by the molecular signature of that cancer.

What is democratic deliberation, and why is it important? How does it apply to this topic of precision medicine and healthcare justice?

I always start off with what I call the “Just Caring” problem. What does it mean to be a just and caring society when we have only limited resources—money—to meet virtually unlimited healthcare needs? And that’s a very, very broad problem that applies to all of healthcare, certainly in the United States today. With regard to cancer, the issue is that these targeted cancer therapies, and the so-called immunotherapies which are among the targeted cancer therapies, are extraordinarily costly. They typically apply to relatively small groups of patients, measurable in a few thousand rather than one hundred thousand. For the vast majority of these patients, receiving one of these very expensive drugs is only going to yield extra months of life, if that, as opposed to a lot of extra years.

I’ve spent 50 years of my life thinking about this issue. And it’s only grown and become more complex over those 50 years, because of all the emerging life prolonging medical technologies that have come to be.

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD

So, if we had a $100,000 drug and this was going to give somebody three extra years of life, my guess is that most of us, democratic deliberators charged with determining how to spend our money on a whole range of healthcare interventions, including, of course, cancer, would say it’s a lot of money, but if we’re giving somebody three extra years, we ought to do that. And we ought to do that, we might say, because we think about, what are we spending now for purposes of giving a patient with HIV an extra year of life? A patient on a four-drug combination? The answer there would be $35,000 a year. And if we spend a $100,000 to give somebody three extra years of life, then that’s $33,000 a year. So it seems like if we’re spending money for the HIV positive patient at that level, we ought to be willing to spend that same amount of money to help cancer patients.

However, things are a lot more complicated than that simple example would suggest. So, in the case of cancer, one of the basic problems that I didn’t make perfectly clear in my earlier remarks is that even though I talked about a molecular feature of a cancer that is usually described as the driver of that metastatic cancer, and that is the target one of the targeted therapies, the fact of the matter is that in metastatic cancer there are going to typically be multiple drivers of a cancer. Most of them will be suppressed by the dominant driver. What happens in practice is that we’ve identified the dominant driver of the cancer, we give the individual a drug to kill that dominant driver, which it successfully does. And then another new driver emerges within that tumor, and then the tumor continues to grow, the cancer progresses. Now we may have another drug for that new driver, which will have roughly the same effect. It’ll kill that new driver and make room for yet another driver. But now, then, we’re providing to individuals several drugs in a row that have costs of $100,000 or $200,000 each. So, we’re spending a lot more money for a lot less good for these cancer patients. And so, the question for democratic deliberation is, what do we owe, under what particular circumstances, as a matter of what a just and caring society ought to be, to patients with metastatic cancer for whom there are these very expensive drugs that are only going to yield, for most patients, marginal benefit?

What I would ask an audience to imagine, when I’m working with an audience of individuals from the community, is that everybody in that room is probably very healthy. They have no idea what their future health vulnerabilities might be. Some people might say, well, we’ve got heart disease in the family, or some family history suggests cancer, but there’s still lots and lots of other health problems that you could have that could be deadly. The question is, if you don’t want to spend all your money on healthcare, and you don’t want to spend everybody else’s money on healthcare, then, collectively, what would you see as being reasonable investments of limited healthcare resources for addressing healthcare needs? Cancer needs, heart needs, Alzheimer’s disease needs, diabetic needs, psychiatric needs, needs associated with various kinds of disability. When you, in a thoughtful and objective way, try to consider the whole range of healthcare needs, where should we invest the limited dollars that we’re willing to provide? Right now, it’s 18% of our gross domestic product, roughly $4.1 trillion. Where are we willing to invest those dollars?

What led you to work that focuses on precision medicine? Was it natural from the other health policy work you have done, specifically work on allocating resources?

It was related both to allocating resources, because the cost of these drugs just leapt out at me, starting roughly in around 2010 or so. But the other thing was that I had been looking at a whole range of ethics and policy issues related to emerging genetic technologies. This was one of the newer elements associated with these emerging genetic technologies. This was a product of the Human Genome Project. Plus, the research that had been going on with regard to cancer, as researchers began to understand the extent to which cancer is this extraordinarily complex disease, that there’s not just sort of one or two or three drivers of these cancers. That there are different biological features of the cancer that are responsible for the cancer being so vigorous in multiplying. In brief, there’s that combination of the cost of these drugs and what that would do to distort the just allocation of health resources in our society, and the genetic features of these cancers that turned out to be so extraordinary genetically complex.

Something that strikes me, discussing these very expensive targeted therapies, is where does palliative care fit into the discussion of precision medicine?

For oncologists who are treating patients, for patients who have read something about precision medicine, for patients who have looked at some of the ads that are associated with precision medicine that have been on television, it’s very difficult to convince any of those patients that palliative care is something that they needed to give serious consideration to. Because it looked like these drugs could give them some very significant extensions of their life. And, of course, the fact of the matter is that there’s some percentage of patients who will get one or two or three extra years of life. There’s a teeny tiny percentage of patients who we call super responders, who might get seven, eight, ten extra years of life or more. At the moment we have no way of identifying before the fact how particular patients are going to respond to these drugs.

What happens is that patients imagine to themselves, I could be that person. Somebody is going to be a super responder, just like somebody ultimately wins that half a billion dollar lottery prize. How do I know it’s not me if I don’t buy a lottery ticket? How do I know it’s not me if I don’t take on this targeted cancer therapy? And if the first therapy doesn’t work, I heard that there’s a second and a third. And so as long as they seem to be doing something by way of controlling my cancer, of course I want that. I don’t want palliative care. So that’s sort of the psychological logic behind the reluctance of both patients and oncologists to recommend palliative care before it is just absolutely clear that nothing else is going to work.

What is one overall takeaway someone should get from this book? What is the question you want folks to continue thinking about?

What are we willing to accept as limits on access to very expensive marginally beneficial healthcare in our society? I want readers to think about the just caring problem, which is an extraordinarily complex problem. I’ve spent 50 years of my life thinking about this issue. And it’s only grown and become more complex over those 50 years, because of all the emerging life prolonging medical technologies that have come to be. Not just with regard to cancer, but with regard to heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, diabetes, and every other area of medicine that we care to name.

I’d like to add that ideally, ethically, I think we’re inclined to say, if we have a somewhat costly life prolonging care that’s effective, then everybody with the relevant need ought to have access to that if we are a just and caring society. If somebody has an inflamed appendix that is life threatening if they don’t receive the necessary surgery, then they ought to receive that surgery, whether they’re rich or poor, insured or uninsured. They ought not to be allowed to die. You will get, I think, very broad agreement in our society that that’s a just and reasonable kind of moral commitment we ought to make. It gets more difficult, though, to make that commitment when it comes to these extraordinarily expensive cancer drugs. And part of the problem is that in the United States probably no more than half of us are employed at places where we’re provided with very comprehensive health insurance, and where we’re not responsible for paying very much of the cost of our healthcare. But for the other half of the population who typically are working in lower wage jobs, who may be provided with some health insurance but it’s very marginal, it’s bare bones insurance. It’s the sort of insurance that requires that individuals pay 30 or 40% of the cost of these cancer drugs. And, of course, that’s impossible for individuals making $15, $20, $25, even $30 an hour. For a $150,000 drug, they cannot pay $30,000, and so they don’t get it. Nevertheless, they are paying through taxes, and through their insurance premiums, for others who would have access to these drugs. So that’s one of the fundamental inequities in our society, and the targeted cancer therapies make that inequity, I think, more visible. It doesn’t seem as if, as a society, we’re willing to address that challenge. However, that is one of the preeminent ethical challenges that must be addressed if we are to be a just and caring society.

Brews and Views returns, addresses “the science and ethics of IVF and artificial wombs”

Can society and the judicial system keep pace with the technologies of in vitro fertilization (IVF), stem cell biology, artificial wombs, and in vitro gestation?

Simple green line drawing depicting a fetus and its umbilical cord inside a circular womb.

On a Friday evening in late September, there was an obvious energy in the IQ Building atrium as faculty, staff, and researchers gathered for the first in-person Brews and Views event in well over two years. Chris Contag, Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, noted this significance as he introduced the session on “Human Reproduction in a Dish: The Science and Ethics of IVF & Artificial Wombs.”

A panel of experts sat facing the audience, ready to share their perspectives on innovations to the science of human reproduction that could dramatically impact reproductive health. These experts were Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, associate professor, College of Law; Leonard Fleck, PhD, professor, Center for Bioethics and Social Justice, College of Human Medicine; Richard Leach, MD, professor and chair, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, College of Human Medicine; and Margaret Petroff, PhD, professor, Department of Pathobiology & Diagnostic Investigation, College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Leach, reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist, explained new developments in human gamete derivation or in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) for IVF. Citing research on this process that has been successful in mice, he explained a future where it could be possible to create human embryos by taking an adult’s cells and reprogramming them into egg and sperm cells. Asking attendees to consider this possible future, he noted that there are already three companies in the U.S. and Japan related to IVG.

How far are we from this type of assisted reproductive technology (ART) existing? Dr. Margaret Petroff shared that there currently are 2.5 million IVF cycles per year—more than 500,000 babies born each year globally. Dr. Petroff stressed that there is still much to learn about long-term health effects of ART, and that long-term epidemiological studies are needed to learn about impacts of all types of ART.

What is it that makes us human? Dr. Jennifer Carter-Johnson, who is an associate professor of law with a background in microbiology, asked attendees to think about how life is defined—ethically, scientifically, legally. She noted that there is no good definition, that discussing human life is legally ambiguous. In contrast, there is legal precedent about when human life ends. Dr. Carter-Johnson discussed the complexities and unknowns related to the June 2022 Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Individual U.S. states are now making different decisions about access to abortion, and about how a person is defined. If life were to be legally defined as beginning at conception, that would greatly impact the current and future use of IVF and ART.

Philosopher and medical ethicist Dr. Leonard Fleck introduced the idea of an artificial womb and what medical purpose it would serve were it to exist. In theory an artificial womb might be used to save a fetus that was going to be born before viability, or by someone without a uterus. He characterized it as a micro version of a neonatal intensive care unit. The idea of an artificial womb brought up a wide variety of ethical questions related to abortion, who has the right to make decisions about a fetus in an artificial womb, and the high cost of the use of such technology creating access barriers and utilizing limited healthcare resources.

One message from the panelists in the discussion that followed was the importance of thinking about guidelines for this technology now, rather than waiting. The complexity of the topic continued to be apparent—legal, ethical, scientific, safety, health policy, and societal implications.

The question and answer portion brought forth more unique perspectives, demonstrated with both passion and vulnerability from panelists and attendees.

“We can only see a limited distance into the future when trying to assess new technologies,” stated Dr. Fleck. The event generated more questions than answers, but that is the very nature of the mission of Brews and Views. Though the event had officially ended, the room remained abuzz with conversation.

While Brews and Views continued virtually during 2020 and 2021, this event was not only the first in-person offering is years, but also the first that explored a non-COVID topic since the pandemic began. The series is an ongoing collaboration between the Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering (IQ) and the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice, and aims to hold moderated discussions addressing fascinating and provocative areas of bioscience and engineering.

International Development and Health: Rethinking Global Pessimism About the Future

By Sean A. Valles, Director and Associate Professor, Center for Bioethics and Social Justice, College of Human Medicine, Michigan State University

Pessimism about the future is rising around much of the world. Meanwhile, the social institutions of democracy are experiencing slipping public support. The global COVID-19 pandemic has also drawn attention to the importance and fragility of trust.

Unfortunately, none of this should be considered new. The pandemic arrived more than a decade into a trend of declining trust in social institutions. More recently, news reports of fraud and corruption, such as misuses of pandemic relief funds, can push us to see the world as filled with people undeserving of our trust or care. Such an observation can start to look like a moral justification for our own selfishness: “the system is corrupt so I’m just going to get mine and look out for myself.”

We do not need to resign ourselves to selfishness and isolation.

Group of surgeons wearing blue medical scrubs and face masks.
Image description: Cropped shot of a group of surgeons wearing blue scrubs and face masks performing a medical procedure in an operating room. Image source: PeopleImages/iStock.

Economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for showing how examples from around the globe undercut the pessimistic but widespread view among scholars that the “tragedy of the commons” is practically inevitable—the idea that fishers are doomed to selfishly overfish the waters they share with other fishers, etc. That theory of inevitable selfishness and tragedy is rooted in assumptions of human nature that intuitively resonate with a lot of people, which made Ostrom’s debunking work all the harder. Not coincidentally, Garrett Hardin, the creator of a supremely pessimistic view of humanity, was a vocal racist and nativist who saw his pessimism about cooperation as grounds for treating the less privileged peoples of the world as potential invaders threating to take resources from the metaphorical “lifeboat” occupied by the privileged. Extreme pessimism about the possibility of cooperation and solidarity is toxic.

Extreme pessimism about human nature oversimplifies human behavior. Even overtly bad and apparently selfish behavior by others can be evidence of the possibility of future cooperation. For instance, recent research on academic dishonesty by students has found that cheating and plagiarism are driven in part by a desperate desire to be allowed to continue learning as part of a school’s community.

I see the COVID-19 pandemic as a series of failed but fixable attempts at ethical collaboration, and not evidence that cooperation is hopeless during crisis. Yes, the pandemic was rife with selfish acts from those previously mentioned cases of financial misconduct, extending to the problem of wealthy countries quickly buying up much of the global vaccine supply. Disturbingly, many people have felt ethically self-assured in their selfishness, such as a professor who approached me after one of my pandemic ethics lectures, complaining to me that COVID-19 vaccines were surely unethical because they allowed “the weak” to survive nature’s culling.

Despite the innumerable examples of bad behavior, there were also innumerable attempts at cooperation that either succeeded or showed enough of a spark of success that future success seems possible. Consider the case of Dorothy Oliver and Drucilla Russ-Jackson, who defied conventional wisdom about the stubbornness of vaccine skeptics by using kindness and respectful human connections to convince nearly their entire rural Alabama town to get COVID-19 vaccinations. At the global level, the World Health Organization, World Bank, and Gavi the Vaccine Alliance (among many others) all made strides toward helping ease the unethical burdens of the pandemic harming the vulnerable of the world. Each organization was in large part prevented from doing better, however, due to running into needless hurdles such as national governments resisting attempts to get more transparency in their national public health data.

International development is an endeavor based on a fundamental optimism: the conviction that helping faraway strangers is a worthwhile task. As became increasingly clear over the 20th century, ethically helping faraway strangers is no easy task. We can easily hurt those whom we seek to help. But as with the instructive failed efforts during the pandemic, the point is that it remains possible for cooperative efforts to do better next time.

In the spirit of the desire to always do better next time in international development, the Center for Values in International Development has partnered with the Michigan State University Center for Bioethics and Social Justice. Our centers share a fundamental optimism that despite the injustices of the world, and the world’s mixed track record of attempts to make them better, the goal of creating a more equitable world is well worth working for.

One obstacle faced by our two Centers’ endeavors is that global health work and global development work remain partly stuck in their own silos, such as in the ways national and international agencies divide up their roles. Yes, effective and meaningful international development work does need to include the development of societies’ health infrastructure, but not to the exclusion of focusing on wider, intersectional issues of healthcare justice. Sectoral segmentation works against wider inclusion, the acknowledgment of intersectionalities, and consideration of structural issues in how we view human wellbeing. It remains all too common to think of health development work as another slice of the overall pie of development needs, alongside transportation development, housing development, better sewage treatment, financial management capacity strengthening, etc.

In my work, I emphasize the importance of distinguishing between the healthcare system vs. the health system. The healthcare system is just one part of the much larger set of social institutions that steer the health of populations, such as the agricultural systems that determine which foods are available in markets and at what prices. So, while healthcare (hospitals, medicines, and such) should get only a slice of the budgetary pie in international development budgets, it is important to remember that housing policies are health policies too; the same goes for transportation policies and numerous other policies. Housing security is crucial for a healthy life. Transportation is essential for meeting other life needs (shopping, accessing healthcare, etc.), while poor transportation policies can lead to air pollution and other unwanted side effects.

The language that began emerging in the 2000s is that we need “health in all policies.” That phrase has two meanings. First, it’s a call to action, asking that we make sure a society’s policies are conducive to health. For instance, development programs that encourage farmers to grow cash crops also need to take into account health impacts, such as the availability of crucial food crops and the related impacts on community nutrition. Second, “health in all policies” is a description of the way the world works. Development programs seeking to change agriculture and other vital parts of social life simply are also health policies, whether we recognize it or not. International development work affects the health of societies in innumerable ways, and often ways that get too little attention. The Center for Values in International Development brings much-needed explicit attention and analysis to the ethical dimensions of international development work and humanitarian response; we need ethics in all policies. The Center for Bioethics and Social Justice enthusiastically joins in that effort, since there is health in all policies, and our Center specializes in getting attention and analysis to the ways that such health impacts positively or negatively contribute to making health systems more “compassionate, respectful, and responsive to people’s needs, so that equity, inclusion and social justice are available to all.”

This piece was also published by the Center for Values in International Development

New book from Leonard Fleck available for free through August 26: ‘Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion’

Leonard Fleck

Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion is a new book from Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck, PhD. Published this month by Cambridge University Press as part of the Cambridge Elements Bioethics and Neuroethics series, the book is available to read online for free until August 26.

Fleck explores Rawlsian political liberalism, the limits of religious integrity, and examines the issues of physician aid-in-dying, the use of embryos in medical research, abortion, and the artificial womb.

Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion book cover
Image description: The book cover of Bioethics, Public Reason, and Religion by Leonard M. Fleck has art that is a light blue abstract painting with tones of yellow and red. Image courtesy of Cambridge University Press.

“Given the United States Supreme Court Dobbs decision, this volume is especially timely since it is doubtful that the Dobbs decision could pass the public reason test—though readers are free to disagree with that conclusion,” said Fleck.

Summary: Can religious arguments provide a reasonable, justified basis for restrictive (coercive) public policies regarding numerous ethically and politically controversial medical interventions, such as research with human embryos, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, or using artificial wombs? With Rawls, we answer negatively. Liberally reasonable policies must address these controversial technologies on the basis of public reasons accessible to all, even if not fully agreeable by all. Further, public democratic deliberation requires participants to construct these policies as citizens who are agnostic with respect to the truth of all comprehensive doctrines, whether secular or religious. The goal of these deliberations is practical, namely, to identify reasonable policy options that reflect fair terms of cooperation in a liberal, pluralistic society. Further, religious advocates may participate in formal policymaking processes as reasonable liberal citizens. Finally, public reason evolves through the deliberative process and all the novel technological challenges medicine generates for bioethics and related public policies.

Print copies of the book are also available for pre-order. The volume is a slim paperback, clearly written, and accessible for an undergraduate bioethics course that addresses several of these controversial bioethics issues as matters for public policy decision-making.

Neuroethicist Michelle Pham joining Center faculty this fall

Michelle Pham photo

The Center for Bioethics and Social Justice at Michigan State University is excited to welcome new faculty member Michelle T. Pham, PhD, who starts in August. Pham specializes in philosophy of science, neuroethics, and social epistemology.

Most recently Pham was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, where she collaborated on multiple NIH-funded neuroethics projects. One of her projects on post-trial care looks at the ways in which patient-participants with treatment-resistant conditions enrolled in experimental brain implant studies may not have continued access to these effective therapies or maintenance once these studies end. Another project looks at the ethical dimensions of deep brain stimulation for pediatric patients with dystonia, and potentially obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in the near future.

Pham received her PhD in philosophy from University of Washington in 2020. Her research broadly seeks to examine and understand neurotechnology development and its relation to non-expert stakeholders, such as patients who participate in clinical trials.

Related: Welcoming two new faculty to the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice

New Hastings Center special report on anti-Black racism in bioethics

The Hastings Center has published a special report on “A Critical Moment in Bioethics: Reckoning with Anti‐Black Racism through Intergenerational Dialogue.” As stated in a news release announcing the report, it “calls on the field of bioethics to take the lead in efforts to remedy racial injustice and health inequities in the United States.”

The special report includes contributions from faculty in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice. The essay “Colonial Geographies, Black Geographies, and Bioethics” comes from Jennifer McCurdy, PhD, assistant professor. Additionally, “On the Shoulders of Giants: A Reckoning with Social Justice” was co-authored by Libby Bogdan-Lovis, specialist emerita, Karen Kelly-Blake, PhD, associate director of academic programming, and Wendy Jiang, MPH (MD candidate at University of Alabama at Birmingham).

The editors of this special report are Faith E. Fletcher, PhD, MA; Keisha S. Ray, PhD; Virginia A. Brown, PhD, MA; and Patrick T. Smith, PhD, MDiv, MA. Fletcher, Senior Advisor at The Hastings Center and recent 40 Under 40 Leaders in Health Award Winner, is an alumna of the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice’s former MA program in Bioethics, Humanities, and Society.

The full report can be accessed for free via Wiley Online Library.

Bioethics for Breakfast: Aducanumab, Alzheimer’s: Having That Conversation

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, and Irving E. Vega, PhD, presented at the March 24 Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Aducanumab, Alzheimer’s: Having That Conversation.” Bioethics for Breakfast is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman. This session was the second of a two-part series on the theme “Paradoxes of Aging: Living Longer and Feeling Worse.” The presentation portion of the session was recorded and is available to watch on our website.

Aducanumab, a drug designed to treat Alzheimer’s disease, has been the focus of intense medical, scientific, social, and ethical controversy. The FDA Advisory Commission voted almost unanimously not to approve the drug. The research trials failed to show that aducanumab offered significant clinical benefit to patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and notably the enrollment of Black and Latino patients was disproportionately low. It came as a surprise that the FDA itself ultimately gave its approval to the drug, which costs $28,000 per year and is administered monthly through infusion in a hospital setting.

Fleck provided background on Aducanumab and the clinical trials carried out by the developer, Biogen, that led them to seek FDA approval. He defined the different stages of Alzheimer’s disease, noting that over six million Americans currently have been diagnosed with some degree of Alzheimer’s. Fleck also outlined the FDA’s approval process, including their vote to grant emergency use authorization with the expectation of phase four clinical trials completed within nine years. He also pointed out that Aducanumab’s effects are limited to mild cognitive impairment and mild Alzheimer’s, with no benefit in more advanced stages. However, there have been no other Alzheimer’s disease drugs in the past twenty years with promise of significant benefit.

Bringing up concerns of social justice, Fleck discussed the cost Aducanumab within U.S. health spending, particularly within the Medicare program. It is estimated that 85% of the estimated 3.1 million Americans with a mild Alzheimer’s diagnosis are Medicare eligible, meaning the annual cost to Medicare would be in the hundreds of billions of dollars for the drug and its associated costs. Fleck asked attendees to consider whether this spending would be a just use of limited health care resources.

Vega offered attendees questions to consider: is there sufficient evidence about the safety of the drug? Is there sufficient evidence about the effectiveness of the drug? Does the treatment address health disparities in Alzheimer’s disease? He discussed the biology of Alzheimer’s disease, outlining its effect on the brain, and pointing out what is still unknown about the disease. After defining scientific rigor, Vega walked attendees through concerns about the Aducanumab clinical trials, such as participant age and the inadequate representation of Black, Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander populations.

Focusing on these disparities, Vega shared facts pertaining to Black Americans being twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s compared to non-Latino white Americans, and Latino Americans being 1.5 times as likely, compared to non-Latino white Americans. Disparities exist with increased likelihood of comorbidities like stroke, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Given these facts, Vega shared concern for observed adverse side effects of Aducanumab, particularly brain swelling, microbleeds, and slow brain bleeding.

Questions from attendees generation discussion about advocacy work, insurance companies, and direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer’s disease. Fleck and Vega noted the cost of care for an individual with Alzheimer’s, in a long term care facility, is typically in the $80,000-$100,000 range per year. Indirect costs include the lost wages of caregivers, and stress experienced by loved ones. Vega also importantly pointed out the context of the approval of Aducanumab: a global pandemic, COVID-19 vaccine development, and the subsequent spread of misinformation. Attendees also participated in polling questions with hypothetical situations, asking whether they agreed or disagreed with the scenarios. Responses were varied, highlighting the complexities of the topic.

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About the speakers

Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. Fleck’s interests focus on medical ethics, health care policy, priority-setting and rationing, and reproductive decision-making. He explores the role of community dialogue (rational democratic deliberation) in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies. More recently, he has been working on a book-length manuscript that addresses a number of ethical and policy issues related to precision medicine, primarily in a cancer treatment context.

Irving E. Vega, PhD, obtained his undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez Campus. He continued his research training in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at the Graduate School of New Brunswick, Rutgers University, earning his PhD. Vega completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Neuroscience Department at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, where he developed his research career focusing on the pathobiology of Alzheimer’s disease. Vega joined the faculty as an associate professor in the Department of Translational Neuroscience at the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine campus in Grand Rapids, MI in 2014. His research focuses on molecular and biochemical mechanisms that modulate the accumulation of pathological tau proteins in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Vega is also working on ethnic disparities and the influence of ethnoracial factors on blood biomarkers in Alzheimer’s disease.