Close-up Of Doctor's Hand Measuring Blood Pressure Of Male Patient.

Understanding the Role of Race in Health: A New Digital Symposium

By Craig Konnoth

In the 1980s, a vanguard of critical race theorists debated their contemporaries as to whether law could or should play a role in achieving equity — in particular, racial equity. Scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Williams argued that while legal discourse historically had been used to oppress Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), history had shown that in the law also lay the seeds of empowerment. Conceptualizing BIPOC as persons endowed with legal rights, and as a community subject to heightened legal solicitude because of the historical injustices they have faced, has helped undergird their selfhood, dignity, identity and activism. Law could thus be a discourse of despair — but also one of hope.

Whether or not the years have proved those claims correct as to the law, today, a similar debate unfolds in the context of race, medicine, and health care. Today, medicine and the health care system embody discourses of power that rival the law. Will these discourses inevitably serve to oppress BIPOC — and if not, how can we harness their power to achieve justice? Those are the questions that this symposium seeks to answer.

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Washington, DC, USA -- March 4, 2020. Wide angle photo of a throng of protesters at an abortion rights rally in front of the Supreme Court.

June Medical v. Russo Reflects Ongoing Struggle with Black Women’s Constitutional Equality

By Michele Goodwin

The Supreme Court’s June Medical v. Russo case was more than just another cog in the wheel of the intensifying battle against the constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

Though, on its face, the case was about access to abortion, just beneath the surface, the law at issue represented a continuation of Louisiana’s historic resistance to sex and race equality. Read More

a crowd of people shuffling through a sidewalk

The SSTAR Initiative: A Policy Proposal for a Full, Equitable Recovery from COVID-19

By Sara E. Abiola and Zohn Rosen

Full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. will require new policy that promotes equity and streamlines access to social services while supporting small businesses

Unprecedented job loss due to COVID-19 has led to an economic crisis for families of all backgrounds and income levels.

Current health and social services programs are ill-equipped to handle this need. Moreover, long-standing racial health inequities and the stigma associated with using social services will persist in the absence of significant systems-level change.

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Task force on coronavirus and equity report card.

The Health Equity Failures of Massachusetts’ COVID-19 Reopening Plan

By Charlene Galarneau

Massachusetts began Phase III of its reopening plan this week. Reopening unquestionably involves disproportionate risks to the health of some residents relative to others, and the State’s push forward fails to adequately address these risks.

Phase III of Governor Baker’s Reopening Massachusetts Plan began on July 6, with the exception of Boston, which will begin Phase III on July 13. The first step of Phase III focuses on the reopening of recreational activities: gyms, movie theaters, museums, casinos, and professional sports teams, with specific rules for each type of operation.

In its May 2020 report, “Reopening Massachusetts,” the State’s Reopening Advisory Board asserts that “key public health metrics will determine if and when it is appropriate to proceed through reopening phases.” It references six indicators, including the COVID-19 positive test rate, deaths, hospitalizations, health care system readiness, testing capacity, and contact tracing capabilities.

But these state-wide metrics are inadequate, in both public health and ethics terms. Missing from these metrics in particular, and this Reopening Plan in general, is recognition of, not to mention accountability for, the predictably disproportionate negative impacts that reopening has on the lives of Black and Latinx residents, low-wage workers, and other groups already disparately harmed by COVID-19.

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Illustration of a black woman nursing a swaddled baby

Policy Roundup: Improving Maternal Health Outcomes for Black Women

By Alexa Richardson

Data has long shown alarming rates of maternal mortality for black women in the United States, with deaths three to four times the rate for white women. Such deaths are not accounted for by differences in education or income, and systemic racism, including racial bias within the healthcare system, is believed to be a significant contributing factor to the problem. In the past year, this issue has finally made it into the policy arena, with a number of serious policy proposals put forth to try to reduce black maternal mortality.

In April, Congresswomen Lauren Underwood and Alma Adams formed the Black Maternal Health Caucus. Democratic primary candidates Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Kamala Harris, and Senator Cory Booker have all put forward proposals to address racial disparities in maternal mortality. And in October, California enacted legislation aimed at reducing racism and improving maternal health outcomes in obstetrics.

But what is the content of the policies being proposed? Are some better than others? This post surveys some of the biggest initiatives underway. It turns out that the measures being discussed vary widely–in approach, in scope, and in ambition. Read More

Too Young For Sex, But Old Enough For The Sex Offender Registry, Part III

By Michele Goodwin

I conclude Part III in this series from Uganda—a nation recovering from what one doctor describes as a “genocide” from HIV and AIDS. Parts I and II can be found here and here.

As a society, do we really care that teens and preteens have sex? On the one hand we care too much—so much so that the criminal law is the central form of regulating teen sex. This form of regulation is derived from statutes that treat all sexual behavior alike, even though consent and context may drastically vary.  In Law’s Limits: Regulating Statutory Rape Law, found here, I articulate why the criminal law approach, filtered through the judiciary, leads to absurd results. These absurd results include the extralegal punishments inflicted on youth who are punished for participating in consensual sexual activity, such as lifelong registration as a sex offender. These types of consequences and outcomes are problematic because they are morally wrong and foster significant harms across a series of areas, including creating social status harms, by reifying racial and homosexual stereotypes. The criminal law approach also leads to cruel and unusual punishments in an era where sex offender registries are increasingly the norm and a condition of release from prison.  On inspection, such punishments are disproportionate and unjustified.

On the other hand, maybe we care too little about teen sexuality. The notorious Steubenville, Ohio rape case bears this out (where the rape victim suffered backlash and threats), as do the high rates of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and syphilis infections among teens, and teens’ relatively high use of alcohol and drugs prior to sex. Parents fail to talk to their children about sexuality when children most need to understand it: prior to commencing sexual experimentation. Empirical data shows that fathers barely speak to their daughters about sex and these omissions may impact their daughters’ sexual attitudes and behaviors. Governors and prosecutors sometimes demonstrate selective interest in teen sexuality—when it involves specific ethnic populations or the poor. This failure to care enough is manifested in the criminal law approach to shaping teen sex norms, rather than the public health where it is most justified.

So, how might we move forward? Read More

Accomodating Racism in Hospitals

By Michele Goodwin

The Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan is being sued for accommodating the request made by a parent that no African Americans tend to his newborn. The father, who allegedly sported a swastika tattoo, alerted a nurse that blacks were not to care for his baby.

To comply with the father’s request, nurse Tonya Battle, who was caring for the child in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of the hospital was removed or reassigned from tending to the child.  A news video reporting on the incident can be found here. Battle is now suing the hospital.  According to her lawsuit, hospital staff complied with the father’s demand, posting a note next to the baby’s name on the assignment clipboard: “No African American nurse to take care of baby.”

Nurse Battle’s lawsuit claims that she was deeply shocked and offended–she’s worked for at the hospital for 25 years.  Professor Kimani Paul-Emile writes that such requests–based on race or ethnicity–are not unusual at U.S. hospitals and medical clinics.  See her article, Patients’ Racial Preferences and the Medical Culture of Accommodation, which is published in the U.C.L.A. Law Review here.  However, such instances of using racial preferences in the medical setting raise questions about the permissibility of such practices–not only as a legal matter, but also as matters of health and bioethics.  Some patients believe that the quality of their care is enhanced when provided by someone represented by their ethnic group; some even fear that their healthcare is compromised when delivered by medical staff outside of their ethnic group.  Should the law tolerate these forms of discrimination?  What about if racial perceptions have a positive placebo effect?  Post a comment.