Toward a new health justice and equity mission for the Center

By: Director Sean A. Valles and Assistant Director Karen Kelly-Blake

The Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences (CEHLS) has a distinguished history as an intellectual leader in defining the contours of what bioethics is, what its priorities ought to be, and what theories and methods ought to be used in pursuing that work. It is our honor to take up the mantle of leadership in CEHLS. Our goals as Director and Assistant Director are to establish direction and focus for the Center. To successfully achieve these goals, we will need to balance: 1) what the Center is now, 2) what it has the potential to become, and 3) which possible futures to prioritize.

A new focus on a bioethics of health equity and health justice

MSU Health Sciences will be transformed with its emerging partnership with Henry Ford Health System. U.S. healthcare is also in a state of flux with the arrival of a new presidential administration, which raises questions of whether we will revive the universal-ish healthcare of the Affordable Care Act or seek true universal healthcare. Meanwhile, the U.S. is at an inflection point. The COVID-19 pandemic and political turmoil have made it clearer than ever that communities can offer outlandish privilege and wealth for some members and unfathomable neglect and suffering for others.

We must put justice questions at the top of the priority list as we face the challenge of building a healthy, thriving and sustainable community. Not because justice is fashionable or the new hotness. But because it should have been the priority at the outset. The pandemic has starkly identified the true America: the Confederate battle flag being paraded in the occupied U.S. Capitol, brutal suppression of legal protests against police brutality, and “essential workers” risking illness or death in exchange for a minimum wage.

What could the Center be the center of?

Scholars in the Center have already been producing outstanding work on health justice. This work includes topics such as the ethics of universal health insurance and the obstacles and opportunities of creating a more inclusive medical profession. Meanwhile, scholars from across the university have been working on health justice either directly (e.g. the community participatory methods used by colleagues in public health) or indirectly (e.g. fair agricultural policies that affect populations’ food security, or lack thereof). In this context, the Center can and should be a hub for work related to the bioethics of health equity and health justice.

The path forward

The Land Grant promise of MSU was flawed at its inception—it founded an institution for only White men, on Anishinaabeg land taken via coercion and violence. But the core ideal of the Land Grant remains the noblest part of MSU—the promise of a higher education institution dedicated to serving the needs of the people through education and research. A new focus on a bioethics of health equity and health justice continues the Land Grant mission by making the Center focused on serving the pressing health needs of the community.

Much work remains to be done to make these changes happen in the Center. It is no coincidence that we pursue these changes as a Chicano man and a Black woman. We feel strongly that this is the right path for the Center. We gladly take up the leadership mantle to do this necessary and vital work.

(January 2021)