Responding to Racism & Abuse of Power

June 2, 2020

Today, the Center for Bioethics & Health Law joins many organizations in speaking against police brutality and structural racism. Our Center focuses on the ethics of healthcare, research, and public health. We know that brutality, violence, and injustice threaten human well-being as surely as viruses and other causes of disease and injury. The novel coronavirus has served as “a contrast dye exposing what we should have cared about” (Rev. Dr. William F. Barber, May 12, 2020). The tragically not-novel video of the killing of George Floyd reveals those same things that we should care more about: structural racism, the structural inequalities it creates and supports, differences of power, feelings of despair, and opportunities to be better.

Our Center’s website observes that “while the later 20th century’s shift from medical paternalism to patient autonomy supports respect for all patients and their values, today we are acutely aware that patients differ not just in their values and preferences, but in their social identities, economic circumstances, and cultural backgrounds. We appreciate that these differences have ethical significance as patients interact with a healthcare system.” Indeed, we know that these differences matter as people interact with any social system. In our teaching, writing, and research, we stress that justice is one of the principles of bioethics: in the absence of the conditions of fair equality of opportunity, the autonomy and well-being protected by the other principles can only be privileges of the advantaged few.

Our methods—whether scholarly or empirical, whether qualitative or quantitative—employ evidence and argument to persuade others of the rightness of our conclusions and the ethical warrant for action. As a Center of scholars, researchers, students, and teachers, these methods are our instruments of social change. They may seem paltry in the moment, but we must trust that they will have power in the long run. In the meantime, as individuals we join citizens of the world who are watching what is happening in our country—indeed, what has been happening in our country—and we act, speak out, and use the opportunities we have to move toward justice for all. And today, in Pennsylvania we vote.

Lisa S. Parker, Director