Original commentary by BEI Young Professionals member Olivette Burton. A special tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.
Bioethics and social work have much work to do. The timeliness of evaluating our society’s progress involving human rights, poverty, clean drinking water, food sustainability, healthcare and welfare/social service programs is appropriate especially since ethnic/racial/religious divisions and gender schisms exist at such an unprecedented extent both domestically and globally. There is a legitimate question as to whether America or any other country for that matter, has consistently met its burden of improving the human condition for the oppressed, poor and powerless classes within its society. We marvel at the resiliency of persons, always coming out of one situation after another. Perhaps we would do better service thinking about the reasons that they still have to be reinventing themselves, engineering their survival. In her book entitled, “An Uncharted Journey,” noted social worker Bertha Capen Reynolds acknowledged the “titanic struggle of humanity in the twentieth century would center around the liberation of people of darker skin.” She states, “These folk, comprising three quarters of the human race, are now claiming their own after more than three centuries of colonial bondage to the dominant powers of Europe and North America.” She made those observations while recalling the denial of equal rights and justice to Black people first since their unique experience, particularly in America, in deprivation and mistreatment, suffocated their culture and threatened their very existence. However, the collective Black American experience, she noted, influenced the treatment of all people of color as Blacks paved the way for struggle and the clamor for equality and civil rights for all. Here now, 13 years into the 21st century her words, although written nearly 70 years ago are none the less as true today as the 21st century finds itself somewhat socially awkward at adequately ascertaining the needs of people of color or ineffective at finding new and better ways of communicating and incorporating the necessary intangibles.
There has been some notable progress. However, oppression and injustices abound today. If one takes an honest look one cannot ignore the results/impact of social science/scientific research (discourse) and its relationship with technology and policy in failing to permanently and even periodically bridge the divide between the poor and others. One would be hard pressed to ignore distributive justice issues, or fail to notice who is actually asked to carry the overall burden of research versus its benefiting from it any more than one can ignore the creation of a larger indentured slave system, paralyzing and maintaining continuous generational poverty. Taking an honest look however, obligates the viewer to think about and give an honest answer. The answer is the elephant in the world’s room…that no legal or institutionalized effort thus far attempted has consistently achieved a sustained effort for improving the human condition.
What is it that a society needs above all when it has to adjust itself to wholly new conditions? Reading a 1959 sermon entitled, “A Tough Mind and A Tender Heart,” Dr. Martin Luther King stated what I think can be considered a future challenge for bioethics and social work, two fields that really came into their own during the 1960s and 1970s Black civil rights movement. He stated, “the soft-minded person always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.” Bioethics and social work have been and can continue to be the “pain of something new.” Dr. King realized that, more than words and beyond intentions, it takes concerted effort and activism to make change. It takes collaborations, a uniformity of purpose and good communication. Reviewing his lectures on this day, I am reminded that a global society might be energized and benefit by the combined ideas generated from social work and bioethics as our focus is the same as his and other visionaries regarding universally held notions of distributive justice, education and opportunity. Social work deals with the psycho-social issues of families and individuals in crisis. Social workers have practical knowledge and specialized skills that allow a fully rounded assessment of needs and the complex relationships sometimes presented by existing policies that make it a challenge to bring others to self-sufficiency.
Bioethics can continue to examine and expand on our knowledge of what informed consent would look like to persons who do not read very well, are poor and need medical assistance, young and uneducated, do not have English as a first language, or have reason to be skeptical of joining research studies because of negative historical transgressions and routine mistreatment during medical visits simply because the are members of disenfranchised populations and groups. Bioethics can look at the role peer review will play in the future, how IRBs will function or even be constructed and the growing cost associated with recruitment of subjects here and abroad, the ethical treatment of the mentally ill, and of course issues surrounding personal and medical privacy. Bio-engineered foods, artificial limbs, transplants, aging and issues surrounding death with dignity are also issues worthy of consideration.
So we have our work cut out for us. The combined effort of bioethics and social work can effectively examine institutional frameworks/technologies and policies to see if they really create opportunities for vulnerable people regardless of the source of their vulnerability. We can work on ways to engage persons in the community on every level possible appealing to them not simply for the social good but as something more meaningful to them. We can continue to work hard to support policies so as to improve health and eradicate poverty. On the health front we can continue to provide quality reviews of new drugs and technologies/interventions in the fight against HIV, cancer and other diseases. Said Columbia University Black scholar professor Manning Marable during an interview discussing the action necessary for advancement in the black community— but the advice can certainly be used by all vulnerable persons: “there is a need to build a format that recognizes that we cannot refight civil rights issues of the 50s and 60s. The fight is new. That paradigm is over. Human rights change the inequality construction that empowers the Black community and accelerates the possibilities of coalition.” Having a deep appreciation myself about the struggle and issues at stake during the crucial waves of civil rights, as both a bioethicist and social worker, I am well suited for the fight that lies ahead.