Counting Women of Color: Being angry about “missing white woman syndrome” is not enough

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Monica List, PhD

Gwen Ifill is credited with coining the term “missing white woman syndrome” at the “Unity: Journalists of Color” conference in 2004. She used it to describe the disproportionate attention garnered by criminal investigations in which white women are victims, and in some cases, perpetrators. Discussions of this phenomenon resurfaced in the wake of recent media attention to the case of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman from Long Island, NY, reported missing on September 11th—and whose death, confirmed on September 21st was determined to be a homicide, allegedly at the hands of her fiancé.

It is not the attention on these cases themselves that is the issue, but rather how they distract focus away from similar cases occurring at a much larger scale, such as the disappearance of Black and Indigenous women. According to NPR, in 2020 nearly 100,000 Black women and girls were reported missing in the United States. In 2019, more than 5,590 Indigenous women were reported missing, although this may be a gross underestimation given the lack of adequate reporting systems. Most of us would find it difficult to name a single one of them. Yet in the past weeks, our screens, newspapers and minds were filled with Gabby Petito’s name, her story, and her images. Petito’s death is undoubtedly a tragedy, and the fact that it has been so prominently reported is not problematic in of itself, but it is symptomatic of a deeper failure.

Image description: a puzzle of solid white puzzle pieces is assembled with one missing piece remaining in the center leaving a black empty space. Image source: Willi Heidelbach/Pixabay.

From a racial justice perspective, part of the issue is the entrenched racial stereotyping underlying the belief that women of color are somehow at fault for their own disappearances and any violent acts against them. According to Dr. Ashraf Esmail, Director of the Center for Racial Justice at Dillard University, there is a perception that risky lifestyles and personal choices are a license to shift the blame to the victim and diminish social responsibility for these cases. A report published by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that 38 percent of media articles reporting on murders and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls made references to drugs or alcohol. Narratives portraying women of color as angry or hypersexual are also part of this problematic perception, says Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead, associate professor of Communications and African American Studies at Loyola University Maryland.

But this is not simply another failure of the justice system to respect and protect the lives of Black people and other people of color. In addition to being a racial justice issue it is a public health issue. As with other public health issues, the collection, interpretation and reporting of data can be both a problem and a solution. In this case, it is one of the deep roots of a complex, systemic problem. The title of a 2020 article on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls summarizes it well: “They Disappear Not Once, but Three Times: In Life, In the Media, and In the Data”.

There are levels to how women and girls of color disappear in the data. First, the racial and ethnic breakdown of data categories unsurprisingly reflects the pervasive structural and systemic racism of our information management systems. The FBI’s missing person databases’ race categories are Asian, Black, Indian, unknown, and White. There is no category for Hispanic or other ethnicities, nor any subcategories for different Indigenous groups. Even within those limited categories, race misclassification is a common issue. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Report found one instance in which a law enforcement agency still used an outdated coding system dating as far back as the 1960s, in which “N” was interchangeably used for “Negro” and “Native American.” This report also identified several police departments as including American Indians and Indian Americans in the same category. At least one of the databases (the FBI’s National Crime Information Center) does not allow data to be analyzed using race and gender combinations (e.g. “Black” and “woman”), making it difficult to obtain information on actual numbers of women of color reported missing.

Image description: a participant in the Greater Than Fear Rally & March in Rochester, Minnesota is shown wearing a grey knit hat, and they have a handprint on their face in red paint that covers their mouth. Image source: Lorie Shaull/Flickr Creative Commons.

Second, there is no national, unified system for the reporting of missing persons. In the United States, there are three federal missing person databases: the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC); the FBI’s National DNA Index System (NDIS), and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), administered by the Department of Justice. One failure of this setup is that data on missing individuals entered into one database does not automatically populate or transfer to other databases, and access varies. NCIC and NDIS can only be accessed by local, state and federal criminal justice agencies, while NamUs is public and can be accessed by families of missing persons, law enforcement, medical examiners, and victim advocates. While NamUs seems like a good resource, especially to those victims and families who fall through the cracks of law enforcement, it is not mandatory for criminal justice agencies to report to NamUs in all states. Additionally, while almost all law enforcement agencies use NCIC, only a small fraction are registered to use NamUs. In a country with well-documented systemic racism issues, leaving federal reporting up to the good will of local law enforcement is a losing game for women of color.

The final piece of the puzzle is a lack of inclusion of relevant socioeconomic data that would allow a contextualized analysis of cases. This would not only increase chances of recovery of missing women and girls of color, but also help plan and implement preventive strategies. A first step to achieving this is making the collection and analysis of missing persons data inclusive and intersectional. This includes efforts to decolonize data, which from a public health perspective means gathering the data that a community itself finds meaningful, in ways that align with their social structures and cultural practices. But to be clear, these solutions also need good allies outside of those communities. Tomorrow, another Black or Indigenous woman will go missing, and many of us will be sad and angry again. In the meantime, the systems that continue to render missing women of color invisible and uncountable remain unchanged.

Monica List, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine; Dr. List is Head of Research and Animal Welfare for World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organization.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Monday, November 8, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

Continue reading “Counting Women of Color: Being angry about “missing white woman syndrome” is not enough”

Upcoming webinar on the relationship between the criminal legal system, structural racism, and health

Monday, September 13, 2021; 1:00-2:30 PM ET
Zoom registration: bit.ly/bsj-hfhs-sept13

Trauma, Community Health and the Criminal Legal System

Why should we care about the effects of incarceration and policing on communities and their health? This virtual panel discussion and audience Q&A on the relationship between the criminal legal system, structural racism, and health will also explore terminology—including “mass incarceration”—and explore different ways of thinking about trauma.

This webinar is co-presented by the Michigan State University Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Henry Ford Health System Health Disparities Research Collaborative. Panelists include Jennifer Cobbina, PhD, and Christina DeJong, PhD, from the Michigan State University School of Criminal Justice, Carmen McIntyre Leon, MD, from Wayne State University School of Medicine, and Center for Bioethics and Social Justice Director Sean A. Valles, PhD. Henry Ford Health System Health Disparities Research Collaborative Director Christine Joseph, PhD, will moderate the session.

This webinar is free to attend and open to all individuals. A recording will be available following the event.

About the panelists

Jennifer Cobbina, PhD

Jennifer Cobbina is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. She received her PhD in criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in 2009. Her primary research focuses on community responses to police violence and the strategies that communities employ to challenge police expansion and end state sanctioned violence. Her research also examines the intersection of race, gender, and how neighborhood contexts shapes crime and criminal justice practices. Finally, her work focuses on corrections, prisoner reentry and the understanding of recidivism and desistance from crime. She is the author of Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter and How They Changed America.

Christina DeJong, PhD

Christina DeJong is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus on gender, sexuality, crime, and justice. Dr. DeJong’s current work is focused on Queer Criminology, specifically the homicide of transgender people in the United States and how sexuality shapes juvenile offending. She is also currently studying bullying and misconduct in academe. Dr. DeJong received her PhD in Criminal Justice and Criminology from University of Maryland. She is an associated faculty member with the MSU Center for Gender in Global Context.

Carmen McIntyre Leon, MD

Carmen McIntyre Leon completed undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan, attended Wayne State University for medical school, and the Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Drexel) for psychiatry residency and NIMH research fellowship. She worked as medical director for partial programs, inpatient units, research units, and SUD/Methadone programs before returning to Michigan, eventually co-founding Community Network Services, an adult community mental health provider in Oakland County. After a brief stint in New Zealand she returned to Detroit to help lead the newly created Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority as the Chief Medical Director. She is now the Associate Chair for Community Affairs and Director of Public Psychiatry Fellowship with the Wayne State University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience; and Chief Medical Officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Sean A. Valles, PhD

Sean A. Valles is director and associate professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Dr. Valles is a philosopher of health specializing in the ethical and evidentiary complexities of how social contexts combine to create patterns of inequitable health disparities. His work includes studying the challenges of responsibly using race and ethnicity concepts in monitoring health disparities, scrutinizing the rhetoric of the COVID-19 pandemic as an ‘unprecedented’ problem that could not be prepared for, and examining how biomedicine meshes with public health and population health. Dr. Valles received his PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University Bloomington.

Christine Joseph is a Senior Epidemiologist in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Henry Ford Health System. Her research interests include racial/ethnic health disparities, adolescent health, asthma and allergic disease, adherence, and school-based health management. She has experience in the design and implementation of community-based and pragmatic clinical trials. Dr. Joseph has worked on a variety of studies focusing on vulnerable populations and social determinants of health, and has publications in the areas of asthma, food allergy, sleep, LGBTQ health, and health literacy.

Don’t Scapegoat Immigrants for the COVID-19 Pandemic Surge

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Larissa Fluegel, MD, MHS, and Sean A. Valles, PhD

The U.S. COVID-19 pandemic summer surge has inspired a public search for answers as to why wide vaccine availability has not been sufficient to prevent a new wave of infections. Certain answers are plausible, such as blaming the surge on some combination of the more infectious delta variant spread, vaccination rates remaining too low on average and excessively low for some populations, a relaxation of formal disease control restrictions, as well as more nuanced informal social habits such as diminished mask-wearing, more indoor parties, etc. Yet others cast blame onto a much less plausible target: immigrants.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis blames President Joe Biden for being too lax on the southern U.S. border immigration enforcement, suggesting that Biden has been “helping [to] facilitate” the pandemic. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas took things further, ordering that state law enforcement could “begin pulling over vehicles whose drivers are transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19.” Both of these responses to the pandemic spread are unethical, incoherent, and ineffectual. Accusations against Latin American immigrants are unethical and misguided.

For many reasons, blaming those immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border for negative health outcomes is problematic. Such targeted blame is dehumanizing to immigrants—it promotes negative stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, mistreatment and health disparities, and by extension, it is detrimental to non-immigrants’ health. Moreover, it is a form of blame shifting that prevents authorities and the public from effectively taking responsibility for community-wide problems.

Image description: a black and white photo of an individual holding a sign that reads “Hamilton was an immigrant. Einstein was a refugee.” They are wearing a long jacket and a tricorne hat. Image source: Victoria Pickering/Flickr.

Blaming immigrants is dehumanizing

There is a long history of dehumanizing immigrants to the U.S., although such dehumanization is generally done selectively. Immigrants such as Charlize Theron and Albert Einstein are treasured, while others are despised for having the “wrong” skin color, accent, occupations, and so on. Dehumanizing and targeting immigrants has been part and parcel of U.S. history, from 19th century church-burning riots that terrorized Irish immigrants, and the overtly racist Chinese Exclusion Act, to current cases of medical abuse and neglect in migrant detention centers. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith traces these sorts of systemic cruelties to a process of dehumanization in which we find ways of convincing ourselves to think of certain groups of people as somehow less than human. To convince ourselves we seek justifications such as depicting immigrants as vermin infecting or invading a country. According to Livingstone Smith, such depictions then give us permission to act aggressively against those groups and to “exclude the target of aggression from the moral community.”

In sum, we find ways to give ourselves permission to dismiss the ethics of how we treat certain groups of people. With such misplaced permission, we decide that certain groups, in this case select immigrants, don’t count as fellow humans worth caring about, and so abuse doesn’t really count as abuse. It’s this sort of misguided logic that also explains Governors Abbott and DeSantis’ school mask requirement bans. Paradoxically, their purported attempt to reign-in government restrictions on individuals simultaneously reveals disregard for the ways in which harsh immigration enforcement strategies negatively impact the lives of immigrants.

Blaming immigrants promotes unrealistic, unhealthy negative stereotypes

Blaming immigrants promotes negative stereotypes that perpetuate discrimination, social mistreatment, and unjust health disparities. Since early in the pandemic, anti-Asian racism and xenophobia mixed in with COVID-19 politics has led to a worldwide phenomenon of hate crimes against anyone appearing to be of Asian descent, and vicious expressions of misguided blame directed at anyone from the same vague region as where the pandemic originated. Historically, and erroneously, people in the U.S. have associated immigrants with human disease and contagion. Immigration authorities have long scrutinized immigrant health when deciding who can enter or remain in the U.S. Additionally, there is a false perception that immigrant illnesses are predominantly acquired before entry to the U.S.; it is instead most often the case that immigrants tend to struggle with worsening health as they spend more time adopting U.S. cultural norms, including unhealthy eating habits.

Stereotypes about “unsanitary” immigrants represent cruel and unjustified blame shifting. For example, consider meat processing plants which have been hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks. Staffed predominantly by an immigrant workforce, those workers face abusive and unsanitary working conditions (an open secret in the industry for over a century) that foster disease outbreak. Laying blame for this suffering on immigrant workers, or immigration generally, is a horrendous ethical mistake. Statements by public figures like Governors Abbott and DeSantis contribute to morally skewed views about immigrant health.

Unhealthy negative stereotypes hurt people and cost all Americans a lot of money

Another pragmatic consideration is how those immigrants who do fall ill interface with the U.S. health care system. Negative stereotypes about immigrants among health care providers lead to substandard and/or improper care. In fact, the anticipation of being mistreated coupled with fear among those with an undocumented immigration status serve to dissuade immigrants from seeking needed care. Such fears might even discourage some from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. In this way, blaming immigrants contributes to worsening the pandemic. (A related irony is that nearly 1 in 3 doctors are themselves immigrants.)

There is a public health concern to this sequence. Delaying or avoiding care harms immigrants as well as those around them. To avert transmission, contagious diseases need to be treated in a timely manner. Not doing so leads to an underestimation of actual disease distribution and burden. A correct estimation is necessary to determine the right amount of resources and timely measures necessary to contain them. It is a waste of public resources to have those in need use emergency rooms for care that, if identified and delivered in a timely manner, could have been averted before the situation worsened. Part of the motivation for the Affordable Care Act was to  increase access to regular necessary care, yet undocumented immigrants were excluded from benefitting from the Act, despite the fact that providing coverage would have improved public health and probably saved the public money as well. For example, consider strep throat, a condition that is easily treatable with inexpensive antibiotics. Left untreated, strep throat can get complicated and potentially cause serious long-term heart problems. Untreated strep throat might drive a person to seek care in an emergency department. Yet another example is an untreated dental cavity that might lead to a dental abscess or a deep skin infection of the mouth and neck, again possibly resulting in an emergency room visit. Once there, correct diagnosis would require fluid cultures and expensive MRI or CT imaging. The cost of delayed care is borne by all of us. Some combination of insurance companies, hospitals, or government pay those excess fees, passing along costs to everyone else.

Speaking out

It is unfortunately fashionable across the U.S. and Europe to blame immigrants for social problems. Economic and social problems are quickly blamed on immigrants. Conversely, the available evidence points to immigrants being economically and socially beneficial to their respective new country.

We, the authors, come to this issue as people who have committed their professional lives to making healthcare and health policy more humane—seeking to help our future physicians and our colleagues treat patients as complex human beings deserving of care, rather than revenue streams to be maximized. Similarly, we see immigration discussions falling prey to the same mistake so common in healthcare, wherein powerful decision-makers, such as politicians, lose sight of their shared humanity with the people whose lives depend on them. We need to demand better from our political leaders and importantly, we need to speak out when politicians dehumanize immigrants.

Larissa Fluegel photo
Sean A. Valles photo

Larissa Fluegel, MD, MHS, is an Assistant Professor with the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University where she teaches social context of clinical decisions.

Sean A. Valles, PhD, is Associate Professor and Director of the Michigan State University Center for Bioethics and Social Justice. He is author of the 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era (Routledge Press).

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The authors will respond to all comments made by Thursday, September 2, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

Continue reading “Don’t Scapegoat Immigrants for the COVID-19 Pandemic Surge”

Dr. Valles gives “culture of health” seminar for The London School of Economics and Political Science

“Housing security’s place in a ‘Culture of Health’: Lessons from the pandemic housing crises in the U.S. and England”

Sean Valles photo

Center Director and Associate Professor Sean A. Valles, PhD, gave a seminar last month for The London School of Economics and Political Science Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method. Valles presented “Housing security’s place in a ‘Culture of Health’: Lessons from the pandemic housing crises in the U.S. and England” as part of the department’s “Conjectures and Refutations” series.

Dr. Valles has provided a summary of his talk below. A recording is available to watch on YouTube via the LSE Philosophy channel.

People experiencing homelessness had been suffering extreme health and economic hardships before the COVID-19 pandemic, and even more so during it. The notion that housing is a human right is gradually picking up momentum in both the U.S. and England. And that ethical recognition is combining with a growing set of scientific evidence of the effectiveness of “housing first” policies, which provide stable long-term housing to people experiencing homelessness, rather than shuffling people in and out of temporary shelters. Every person ethically deserves safe housing, and failing to provide this has also resulted in a system that cruelly (and at great expense) pushes suffering people into emergency rooms and prisons.

England earned praise for its “Everyone In” program, which was aimed to provide safe housing for every person experiencing homelessness beginning early in the pandemic. By contrast, cities across the U.S. continued defying CDC recommendations by bulldozing temporary encampments set up by people experiencing homelessness, including in Lansing. Meanwhile both the U.S. and England banned evictions of renters who fell behind on their rent during the pandemic, but both also failed to make realistic long-term plans for how to secure housing and income for people who have no way of paying past-due rent once the eviction bans expire.  On both sides of the Atlantic, the pandemic inspired governments to stumble toward recognizing how essential housing is for good health in general and also dealing with this fact. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum, and push for universal housing, since trying to survive without secure housing was already difficult before the pandemic, and will remain so after it ends.

Pandemic and Endemic COVID-19 Ethics: Lessons from the history of tuberculosis

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Karen M. Meagher, PhD

Recent U.S. headlines are starting to reflect a dawning public awareness that health experts have long suspected: COVID-19 might be with us for a long time. In January 2021, almost 90% of coronavirus expert respondents to a poll by Nature considered it “likely” or “very likely” that the virus will continue to circulate somewhere on the globe for years to come. As vaccine rollout continues, the crisis in India has yet again revealed the devastating consequences of pandemic mismanagement. Only two infectious diseases have been successfully eradicated globally: smallpox, and the lesser-known rinderpest. A world in which COVID-19 is endemic might be one that requires long-term public health planning and requires bioethics to recalibrate. The global health and social impact of the pandemic makes COVID-19 challenging to compare to other infectious diseases. However, ongoing multidisciplinary analysis of tuberculosis (TB) provides one demonstration of the possible contributions of bioethics looking forward.

Pandemics as social levelers

A bacterial as opposed to viral infection, TB outbreaks peaked in different places across the world throughout the 1700s and 1800s (Barnes, 2020). During such periods, TB affected people across social strata. Affluent instances of TB contributed to the emergence of social narratives romanticizing TB as a condition striking those with a more sensitive and artistic temperament (Bynum, 2012). Prior to the emergence of germ theory, TB was considered a hereditary condition, running in families with such temperamental proclivities. The notoriety of some TB patients bears resemblance to early celebrity cases of COVID-19 that circulated on social media, normalizing infection while illustrating both recovery and vulnerability. The social and cultural variability of such notoriety is also significant, with India’s highly publicized celebrity suicides during lockdown requiring more analysis to tease apart the mental health impact of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the death of well-known human rights advocates, such as actor Vira Sathidar, from COVID-19 has prompted reflection on the pandemic’s cost to India’s creativity in addition to the devastating loss of life.

Outdoor Play and Tuberculosis print from 1922
Image description: Print from 1922 shows a girl sitting by a window watching children playing outdoors. The title reads “Outdoor Play and Tuberculosis,” with the text: “Outdoor play is as necessary to health as food or sleep. At home, let the children play in the yard or on a well-guarded roof. At school, ample open air playgrounds must be provided. The city that fails to provide public playgrounds may be forced to provide tuberculosis sanatoria.” Image source: public domain/GetArchive.

Hopes for eradication

In the early 1900s, incidence of TB declined as living and nutrition conditions improved, and as populations acquired natural immunity. Some of these improvements were prompted by critiques of industrialization, which contributed to crowded and inhumane living and working conditions (Barnes, 2020).And yet, the same romantic narratives that normalized TB in the affluent also reflected and fostered social indifference to—and scapegoating of—the poor living with TB (Bynum, 2012). The development of effective antibiotic treatment and a childhood vaccine accelerated population health gains in the 1940s and 1970s respectively. The relative influence of economic, political, and biomedical casual factors in driving the decline of TB continues to generate debate across epidemiology and social sciences. Public health gains during this century shaped hopes for global TB eradication.

Rising inequality

However, the 1990s marked a time of increased recognition of resurgent TB across all nations. As with the recent COVID-19 surge in India, a social model of health is needed to account for resurgence of TB. 20th century rates were simultaneously influenced by global policy failure to address health needs of those in poverty, cultural and political events, and new pathogen variants. The rise of HIV and AIDS produced a distinct yet overlapping pandemic, as the immunocompromised are especially vulnerable to TB co-infection. Multidrug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) had been developing alongside use of antibiotics. Medical anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer has been widely critical of global economic policy, which influenced bifurcated standards of care in affluent Western nations and the global south and to the rise of MDR-TB. The moral valence of communities worth investing in is also intertwined with histories of colonialism and ongoing racial and class dynamics that we have seen recapitulated during COVID-19 within the U.S. and globally.

Resistance and its social meaning

Antimicrobial resistance raises a distinct set of ethical issues, from obligations of antimicrobial stewardship to imperatives for drug and diagnostic tool development. The potential for development of COVID-19 vaccine resistance is an ongoing concern. Some fear that SARS-CoV-2 variants have mutations that render them uninhibited by (resistant to) neutralizing antibodies, thereby creating the possibility of “escaping” the immune system response seen in the already infected and/or vaccinated. The development of immune escape is a crucial factor in determining whether COVID-19 becomes endemic. The social implications of pathogen genomics are multifaceted:

  1. First, identification of new variants is now viewed by media organizations as newsworthy, influencing public perception of how outbreaks occur. The history of TB demonstrates that public interest could wane if media organizations in affluent nations lose interest in their novelty.
  2. Second, genomic surveillance illustrates one of the most promising areas of precision public health, requiring ethical guidance for establishing trust, transparency, and community welfare. However, the history of TB demonstrates the continuing global disparities in global health surveillance laboratory capacity.
  3. Third, Emily Martin’s ethnographic work on American understandings of immunity demonstrates the interplay between depictions of the body and pathogens, expert and lay experiences of disease, and social ideals (Martin, 1994). COVID-19 has undoubtedly altered human views of their relationship to microbes and will continue to do so in unanticipated ways.

Economics & TB

Currently, almost one quarter of the world’s population lives infected with tuberculosis. Many have a latent TB infection, which is not contagious. However, if untreated, latent TB can develop into active TB. The World Health Organization estimates that 10 million people fell ill and 1.4 million people died from TB in 2019. India leads the world in TB cases, an often-noted harbinger of its potential role in COVID-19 global health outcomes. The social determinants of health continue to need greater policy attention: 49% of people with TB continue to face catastrophic costs, defined as greater than 20% of annual household income. Drug resistance exacerbates these economic barriers: around 80% of people with MDR-TB face catastrophic costs. The economics of COVID-19 echo these relationships. As I write, members of the World Trade Organization are negotiating details of waiving COVID-19 vaccine intellectual property rights.

Endemics and social justice

The newly renamed MSU Center for Bioethics and Social Justice is an apt reflection of the shifting role of bioethics, including its attention to matters of population health. Emeritus faculty member Judith Andre notably argued bioethics is best understood as a multidisciplinary practice (Andre 2002). Bioethics practices must change in response to persistent and rising health inequities, including in infectious disease. TB outbreaks have affected community health for millennia, impacting residents of ancient Egypt and Greece. It is Ancient Greek, too, that provides the etymological differentiation between pandemic and endemic infections: pan, meaning “all,” en meaning “in,” and demos meaning “people.” We can sustain hope that COVID-19 will fade into the background, becoming another one of many common childhood coronavirus illnesses that does not confer serious symptoms. However, as this brief glimpse of the ethics and history of TB illustrates, COVID-19 merits distinct ethical analysis to avoid complacency.

Join the conversation

Global eradication of COVID-19 through universal vaccination requires a collective effort on a scale rarely achieved in human history. How do you think bioethics can generate new collaborations to sustain the global response to COVID-19? What values are relevant to you if COVID-19 becomes in the people as well as affecting all of us in this global emergency?

Photo of Karen M. Meagher

Karen M. Meagher, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Ethics Research at Mayo Clinic. Her main research interest is in ethics and social implications of human and pathogen genomics. She also holds the position of associate director of public engagement in which she leads a community engagement network for the Mayo Clinic Biobank in the Center for Individualized Medicine.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, May 27, 2021. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.
Continue reading “Pandemic and Endemic COVID-19 Ethics: Lessons from the history of tuberculosis”

Bioethics for Breakfast: Caring with and for undocumented physicians and patients

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and Society

Mark G. Kuczewski, PhD, of the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine presented at the April 22 Bioethics for Breakfast session, offering perspectives and insight on the topic “Caring with and for undocumented physicians and patients.” Bioethics for Breakfast is generously sponsored by Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman.

The session addressed the contributions of undocumented immigrants to our communities in the United States, including those of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) physicians, to our healthcare system; the limits that exclusionary practices place on the contributions of undocumented immigrants to our healthcare system; and approaches to facilitating better care of undocumented immigrants in the healthcare system.

Dr. Kuczewski shared facts about undocumented immigrants in the U.S.: they number approximately 10-12 million, approximately two-thirds have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years, they cannot buy a full-priced policy on an ACA exchange, they commit crimes at lower rates than U.S. citizens, an increasing percentage are of Asian origin, and there are fewer in the U.S. now than in 2010. He pointed out that excluding these individuals from obtaining health insurance through the Affordable Care Act ends up harming the overall pool of people in the insurance marketplace.

Dr. Kuczewski also explained how U.S. immigration policies have changed since the Clinton administration and now those policies have created barriers to entering the U.S. lawfully and with authorization, with regard to application rules and the quota system.

“This is a people issue,” said Dr. Kuczewski, adding that the stable population of 10-12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have healthcare needs, and need to be able to seek care. Using the example of someone in need of kidney dialysis, he pointed out that the usual route of getting Medicare coverage is not an option because federal benefits are not available to undocumented immigrants. Dr. Kuczewski highlighted the importance of hospitals and clinics caring for undocumented patients and advocating for them, in order to foster trust over fear, and in turn help to avoid negative impacts on public health.

Finally, Dr. Kuczewski discussed the challenges for DACA recipients who matriculate through medical school while being ineligible for federal student loans. The discussion portion of the session explored the importance of educating people, including politicians, on revisions to the ACA, and avenues for advocacy work for schools and universities, students, medical professionals, and instructors. Related resources are linked below.

Related Resources

About the Speaker

Mark G. Kuczewski, PhD
Mark G. Kuczewski, PhD, is the Fr. Michael I. English, S.J., Professor of Medical Ethics and the director of the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. Mark is a past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) and a Fellow of the Hastings Center. He has been engaged in bedside clinical ethics issues for more than 25 years. For the last decade, he has been an articulate spokesperson for the just and equitable treatment of immigrant patients. He created the Sanctuary Doctor website with Drs. Johana Mejias-Beck and Amy Blair to assist clinicians in supporting immigrant patients. He led the effort to make the Stritch School of Medicine the first medical school in the nation to openly welcome applicants who are DACA recipients.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

What do LGBTQ patients want from their healthcare providers?

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The 2020-2021 Bioethics Public Seminar Series continues later this month with a panel of MSU alumni. You are invited to join us virtually – events will not take place in person. Our seminars are free to attend and open to all individuals.

Controversies and Complexities in LGBTQ Health Care

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Zoom registration: bit.ly/bioethics-jan27

Do you feel prepared to provide excellent care to your LGBTQ patients? Calls for social justice and corrective actions are being mounted by various and intersectional constituencies. These calls for social change must be reflected in improved clinical care, as well. What do LGBTQ patients want from their healthcare providers? Health professionals often think that they do not serve LGBTQ+ people, but Williams Institute data reports about 3-10% of the U.S. population of adults, depending on state, identify as a sexual and gender minority person. What are some of the ethical and clinical challenges that clinicians and patients face? This seminar will address these broadly understood health issues that impact the LGBTQ community, as we aim toward an inclusive and equitable health delivery system. Bring your questions and take part in this exciting and timely conversation with a panel of MSU alumni.

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Join us for this online lecture on Wednesday, January 27, 2021 from noon until 1 pm ET.

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Dr. Emily Antoon-Walsh

Emily Antoon-Walsh, MD, MA, FAAP (she/her), is a board-certified pediatrician who specializes in the care of hospitalized infants, children and adolescents. She graduated from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 2013 with an MD and an MA from the Bioethics, Humanities and Society program. She completed her pediatric residency at Seattle Children’s Hospital/University of Washington. As a medical student she worked to improve medical education around LGBTQ issues. As a resident she interviewed trans youth and their parents about barriers to gender-affirming care. She now practices hospital pediatric medicine, which presents special challenges and also privileges in providing LGBTQ-affirming care for families. She works in a community hospital in Olympia, WA, where she lives with her wife and child who is a true Pacific Northwest baby and loves the outdoors on the rainiest, cloudiest of days.

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Dr. Barry DeCoster

Barry DeCoster, PhD (he/him), is an Associate Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. His research interests focus on the overlapping areas of bioethics and philosophy of science & medicine. DeCoster is interested in how vulnerable patients—such as LGBTQ health, racial minority health, and women’s health—engage and respond to the particular needs of their communities. He is also interested in the lingering impact of the medicalization of LGBTQ health and how queer patients are themselves constructed as both ethical and epistemic agents. Dr. DeCoster received his B.S. in Biotechnology & Humanities from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Michigan State University. He spent much time working at MSU’s Center for Ethics as a grad student, and remembers that time fondly as a source of mentorship. Dr. DeCoster enjoyed the opportunity to teach fantastic students for three years at MSU’s Lyman Briggs College.

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Dr. Henry Ng

Henry Ng, MD, MPH, FAAP, FACP (he/they), is a physician, educator and advocate for LGBTQ health. Dr. Ng has been involved in LGBTQ health care since 2007 and he is currently a physician in the Center for LGBTQ+ Health and the Transgender Surgery and Medicine Program at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. He completed his BS and his MD at Michigan State University. He completed his residency and chief residency in Internal Medicine/Pediatrics at MetroHealth Medical Center. In 2012, he completed a Master’s in Public Health degree at Case Western Reserve University with an emphasis on Health Promotion/Disease Prevention for LGBT populations. He served as an associate editor for the journal LGBT Health and is a senior associate editor for the journal Annals of LGBTQ Public and Population Health.

Can’t make it? All webinars are recorded! Visit our archive of recorded lecturesTo receive reminders before each webinar, please subscribe to our mailing list.

A COVID-19 Vaccine Won’t Stop the Pandemic

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This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Parker Crutchfield, PhD

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to maim and kill thousands and devastate countless others, many are pinning their hopes of returning to a life resembling normal upon the development of a vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has even advised states and cities to be prepared to allocate up to 800 million doses of a vaccine in late October or early November. But it is highly unlikely that a vaccine will do much to stop the pandemic and related significant harm. For a vaccine to get us out of the pandemic, it needs to be developed, distributed, and received. Regardless of its development and distribution, if people don’t take it, then it won’t do any good. And there isn’t much reason to think that many people will take it, at least initially.

Image description: an illustration of a bottle with a white label that says “COVID-19 Vaccine” in black text. The bottle is different shades of blue with a dark blue background. Image source: Shafin Al Asad Protic/Pixabay.

Allocation Models

Recently, a team of scholars advocated for a scheme to allocate the eventual vaccine, the Fair Priority Model. This model, like most models of allocation, assumes that the vaccine will initially be scarce. On this assumption, the allocation then proceeds in phases, the first preventing the most significant harms such as death, the second preventing other serious harms and concomitant economic devastation, and the third addressing community transmission. Other models may set different priorities by, for example, putting health care workers or racial and ethnic minorities first in line.

Developing allocation models is important. But they all rest on a questionable assumption: that the people to whom the vaccine is allocated actually want it, or are at least willing to take it. Scarcity is just as much a matter of demand as it is a matter of supply.

Demand for a Vaccine

Recent evidence suggests that, generally, people won’t take the vaccine initially, even if offered. Almost 80% of people said they wouldn’t get it, if available, at least until others have done so, according to a recent CBS News poll. A return to something resembling normal life requires around 70-80% of the population to be immune.

Mistrust of the politicization of vaccine development or of the scientific practices involved may be responsible for much of the population’s apparent hesitation. But reasonable people may also simply not want to be first in line for a new immunity enhancer. Thus, whatever criteria are used, the allocation scheme must incorporate consideration of demand, not simply supply.

For example, the first allocation according to the Fair Priority Model should go to those people whose being vaccinated would most likely prevent death and who want the vaccine. If the vaccine is allocated to health care workers, the allocation must be to people who are health care workers and who want the vaccine. That is, demand for a vaccine should be just as much a component of allocation models as any other consideration.

Voluntary or Compulsory?

Allocation models must consider the population’s demand for a vaccine in order for such models to provide useful guidance on distribution. Given the apparent lack of demand, giving people the choice of whether to take the vaccine is unlikely to stop the pandemic any time soon. But demand only matters if people have an option. One way to avoid having to consider the population’s willingness to take the vaccine, and to dramatically decrease the time it takes to boost 70-80% of the population’s immunity, is to take that willingness out of the equation and make it compulsory.

Already some vaccinations are compulsory, depending on a person’s circumstances. Some have argued that the COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory. One common principle in philosophy is that ought implies can. This means that what one’s moral obligations are hinges on what one can do. Even if one can justify compulsory COVID-19 vaccination, it’s unlikely that this is something that can be achieved. Compulsory vaccination is not something we can do, which means it’s not something we should do.

Consider, for example, the widespread reluctance to wear a mask and the flouting of social distancing guidelines. Wearing masks and social distancing are very minor burdens to bear for others’ well-being. While it is true that mask and social distancing mandates push against unrestrained permission to do what you want when you want to do it, others be damned, these intrusions are arguably minor (though are admittedly disruptive). Requiring 70-80% of the population to go someplace and get poked by a needle on multiple occasions or sprayed in the nose are much greater liberty intrusions. It is a pipe dream to think that a vaccine mandate would be accepted by the very same population who refuses to bear the more minor burdens of mask wearing and social distancing, which amounts to at least 29% of the population, enough to undermine our ability to stop the pandemic.

Different Baskets for Our Eggs

If administration of the COVID-19 vaccine is voluntary, not enough people will volunteer to get it. If administration is mandatory, still not enough people will get it. The vaccine’s allocation can only be either voluntary or mandatory. Either way, not enough people will get it, at least at first. The only conclusion to draw is that a vaccine is not going to stop the pandemic, at least any time soon. If ought implies can, we ought not pin our hopes upon a vaccine, because we cannot hope for it to work to stop the pandemic. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Image description: a narrow tunnel between two brick walls that leads to darkness. Image source: Peter H/Pixabay.

However, incentives and disincentives can change a person’s mind. Other than the incentive intrinsic to getting the vaccine—the preservation of human life and well-being—are there others that might make people more willing to get it, such as money or tax breaks? Or are there disincentives to vaccine refusal that might convince someone it is better to get it than it is to refuse? Carrots or sticks?

If neither, then we’re in for the long haul.

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Parker Crutchfield, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Program in Medical Ethics, Humanities, and Law at the Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, where he teaches medical ethics and provides ethics consultation. His research interests in bioethics include the epistemology of bioethics and the ethics of enhancement, gene editing, and research.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, October 8, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Crutchfield: Trust and Transparency in Quarantine; Public Health Crisis Warrants Liberty RestrictionsWe Should Tolerate and Regulate Clinical Use of Human Germline Editing

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Brews and Views events pivot to online format

Brews and Views icon green and purple As members of the MSU community continue to work remotely and practice social distancing, Brews and Views has pivoted to online-only “at home editions” of the series that addresses the implications and ethical considerations of biomedical innovations and topics at the forefront of scientific investigation.

The first Brews and Views: At Home Edition was held on March 20 on the topic “Novel Coronavirus Pushes our Limits— We Need to Push Back, Thoughtfully and Fast.” Discussants were Brett Etchebarne, MD, PhD (College of Osteopathic Medicine), Leonard Fleck, PhD (College of Human Medicine), Maria Lapinski, PhD (College of Communication Arts and Sciences and College of Agriculture & Natural Resources), and Richard Lenski, PhD (College of Natural Science). Dr. Chris Contag, Director of the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering (IQ) and Chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, served as moderator.

The group of experts addressed scientific, communication, medical, societal, and ethical challenges presented by the novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 disease. Their goal was to inform and help those in the audience as we all navigate this global crisis. A recording of the event is available to watch on the IQ website.

On April 17, a second “at home edition” event took place, titled “COVID-19 and Our Children: Worry Now or Worry Later?” Moderators Dr. Chris Contag and Dr. Keith English, Professor and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development, were joined by discussants from across the university: Carrie Shrier (MSU Extension), Kendal Holtrop, PhD (College of Social Science), Dawn Misra, MHS, PhD (College of Human Medicine), and Amy Nuttall, PhD (College of Social Science and C-RAIND).

Given the various ways that the current pandemic will impact children, they considered several questions: How will social distancing impact children? How can we use online learning to facilitate education? How can we prepare for the next epidemic? How do we deal with the direct and indirect effects and the social sequelae of this pandemic? How do we effectively communicate information to our children without increasing or generating fear?

To receive notice of future Brews and Views events, subscribe to IQ’s email newsletter. The next Brews and Views: At Home Edition is scheduled for Friday, May 29 from 5:00-7:00 pm on “The Dollars and Sense of Economic Convalescence from COVID-19.” The discussion will feature members of the local business community as well as Sanjay Gupta, PhD, Dean of the Eli Broad College of Business. Registration for the online event is open.

Brews and Views is presented collaboratively by the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Institute for Quantitative Health Science & Engineering at Michigan State University.

COVID-19 Vaccine: “Not throwing away my shot”

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Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Sabrina Ford, PhD

In the advent of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there is an underlying belief in the United States that a COVID-19 vaccine may be the Holy Grail, the silver bullet to assuage the pandemic and open up the quarantine doors. Yet, there is a divide in the United States regarding vaccination acceptance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports less than 50% of adults receive the vaccine for influenza (flu). In the 2017-2018 flu season, 37.1% received the vaccine, the lowest rate in ten years. The rate increased to 45.3% in 2018-2019. In a recent study reported in The Boston Globe, authors Trujillo and Motta found that 23% of persons surveyed said they would not get the COVID-19 vaccination. The study breaks it down further regarding anti-vaccination attitudes (also known as “anti-vaxxers”) and found that 16% of respondents identified themselves as anti-vaxxers, and of those, 44% said they would not get the COVID-19 vaccine. The researchers contend that anti-vaccine sentiment still exists in spite of the deadliness of COVID-19.

Vaccine debate

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Image description: An illustration of a light green circle with a vaccination syringe in the center that is surrounded by green viruses. Image source: Alexandra_Koch/Pixabay.

As Americans, we want what we want how we want it. For some of us, the vaccine cannot come fast enough, and it better be effective. Others don’t plan to get it even when it is available. I have set up a dichotomous choice, but indulge with me in thinking through the debate. Many philosophical and ethical discussions occur in academic research—and particularly in mainstream and social media—highlighting opposing views of those who choose to vaccinate and those who do not. Often, these two positions fall along partisan lines, but not in the way that we might expect. The anti-vaccine movement began with the political left, but spread to the religious right, conservatives, and libertarians.

Approximately 20 years ago, a flawed but influential study linked the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. It started a hot debate fueled by staunch supporters of anti-vaccination from both sides of the aisle. The anti-vaxxer movement took hold with powerful liberal voices, but in recent years has become convenient for the religious and far-right who aim to keep government out of personal decisons. A 2015 Pew Research Center Study found that 12% of liberals and 10% of conservatives are opposed to vaccination. Herein lies my question: to what can we attribute the strong stance that anti-vaxxers take regardless of political position? Why does this question matter? America is a free country. However, the movement warrants an understanding in the midst of a pandemic of an extremely deadly disease whereby science tells us that a vaccine may mitigate infections and death.

Facts are stubborn things

One commonality between the liberal and conservative anti-vaccine stance is a lack of trust in science and medicine, and belief in “alternative facts.” This is particularly true within the anti-vaxxer movement. Some don’t trust science based on real life experiences or notable past deceptions in public health interventions, such as the Tuskegee Experiments, Havasupai Diabetes Project, Henrietta Lacks, etc. Antithetically, the autism study was deceptive by negating the lifesaving MMR vaccine as harmful. This myth has persisted over time, fueled by the anti-vaxxer movement and the discount of science as faulty, dangerous, driven by big government, and against individual choice. Facts versus feelings further complicates the human cognitive decision-making process. For example, in the case of vulnerable children with autism for whom science has not fully unraveled a cause or treatment, anti-vaxxers feel they can place blame on the MMR vaccination. Feelings contribute to the uptake of faulty information and fake news via social media, in turn drowning out the facts.

Herd immunity

Vaccines have been one of the greatest public health successes in the world due in large part to herd immunity. Herd immunity comes with centuries of science resulting in the reduction of deadly diseases. The cursory explanation for herd immunity is: if a large proportion of a community is vaccinated, the lower the collective risk to the community. The algorithm suggests at least 80-90% of a community needs to have immunity to a disease and/or be vaccinated to protect the proportion of persons with compromised health conditions who cannot be vaccinated. The range in vaccination rates is dependent on the effectiveness of the vaccine. We have seen the eradication of smallpox and polio because of a highly effective vaccine delivered to most of the children in the U.S. This was achieved through mass immunization and extremely effective public health messaging. Most recently, buy-in to herd immunity has devolved from a fear of deadly disease to a fear of the very thing that prevents deadly disease. As a result, we have seen a resurgence in measles, which can be deadly for children with compromised immune systems. The science of herd immunity is powerful but relies on collectivism and social responsibility. The requirement that a large proportion of a community needs to be vaccinated to protect others cuts across American values of individuality and freedom of choice.

Final thoughts

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Image description: Fabric face masks of various colors and patterns are arranged flat on a yellow surface. Image source: antefixus21/Flickr Creative Commons.

Before COVID-19, we lived in a different era with some generations never experiencing or witnessing extremely contagious, deadly diseases, confirming a belief that we can individually control our own disease states. Now, we are faced with a history making, highly infectious, deadly disease. Will we adopt a philosophy of sacrificing a bit of comfort by quarantining, wearing masks, or experiencing the pinch of a vaccination to save the lives of others? The jury is still out on that debate. We have witnessed segments of our society rebel and even retaliate against the idea of vaccination. Yet, scientists are working faster than ever to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine, and the U.S. government has promised to enable the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to relax clinical testing protocols to push the vaccine out in order to save lives. No, the vaccine will not be the silver bullet, but it has the potential to augment natural immunity to work as a tool of collective protection. Is the deadliness of COVID-19 enough to override the need for anti-vaxxers to hold onto personal choice?

This is not an indictment on one’s personal choice not to be vaccinated, but an opportunity to ponder individuality versus social responsibility for the greater community benefit. COVID-19 has been a game changer on human behaviors, requiring us to social distance and wear masks for the greater good. Will we embrace social responsibility and be vaccinated to save lives? How do we reconcile our individualism with the adoption of collectivism?

ford-sabrina-2020Sabrina Ford, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology and the Institute for Health Policy in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Dr. Ford is also adjunct faculty with the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Monday, June 1, 2020. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

You must provide your name and email address to leave a comment. Your email address will not be made public.

More Bioethics in the News from Dr. Ford: Contemplating Fentanyl’s Double Duty

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