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 recent40 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.
As 2021 comes to an end, we are excited to introduce two faculty members who will be joining the Center in 2022. Please join us in welcoming them to Michigan State University.
Jennifer McCurdy, PhD, will join the Center in January. Dr. McCurdy was most recently a Multicultural Postdoctoral Fellow in the Philosophy Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is a critical social bioethicist whose work focuses on understanding and eliminating racial and colonial injustices in contemporary health settings and communities. Currently, Dr. McCurdy is working on a scoping review of Indigenous values in the bioethics literature, and she is co-leading a series of Hastings Center special reports on racism and bioethics.
Dr. McCurdy received her PhD in religious studies with emphasis in ethics, colonialism, and critical religious studies from the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology in 2019. She also holds a Master of Humanities with emphasis in philosophy and bioethics, a Bachelor of Science in nursing, and an HEC-C (Healthcare Ethics Consultant-Certified).
Megh Marathe, PhD, will join the Center next fall with a joint appointment in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Dr. Marathe is currently a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. They received their PhD in information from the University of Michigan in 2021.
Dr. Marathe’s research seeks to foster dialogue between expert knowledge and lived experience in the domain of health. Their recent work showed that for both doctors and patients, the boundary between pathologic and normal events is fluid, dynamic, and porous in epilepsy and other episodic conditions. Calling an event a seizure affects the patient’s financial stability, social participation, and life aspirations, and hence, both patients and providers take an expedient approach to diagnosing seizures.
Dr. Marathe’s work advances the fields of information studies, disability studies, and science and technology studies, and generates practical implications for inclusive healthcare in the era of technologized medicine. They are actively seeking collaborators for new projects that: 1) support patients with childhood-onset cancer or epilepsy in the transition to adult care, and 2) examine how neural implants affect medical practice and patient experience. Visit Dr. Marathe’s website to learn more about their work.
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.
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.
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.
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