I’m sorry about the delay– my second post about Medtronic and local investigators will be up soon.

This week I’ve been distracted from this blog (and from the topics it covers, even in my own private thoughts) by two very important pieces of U.S. news.  While not directly related to public health or research, both are urgent matters of human dignity and for that reason I think they’re actually closely related to this blog’s mission.

First: on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted that the Indian Child Welfare Act does not prevent non-custodial parents from having their parental rights terminated, and remanded the adoption case at the center of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl back to the South Carolina courts.  Justices’ questions during arguments focused on the race of the child and her father, Dusten Brown, despite the fact that the Cherokee Nation is entitled to set its own requirements for enrollment.  The Cherokee Nation determines its membership by descent from a person named in the Dawes Rolls– not by blood quantum– and not only do Dusten Brown and his daughter qualify, but the Court has no standing to object.

More importantly, the ICWA was passed to prevent exactly the situation at hand: the removal of Native American children from their homes and their subsequent placement with white families and assimilation out of their language and culture.  Despite the ICWA, Native American children are removed from their homes in numbers far disproportionate to their population, and overwhelmingly placed with white families.  Not only do these children lose the opportunity to be raised by their families and in their own communities, to learn their language and culture; they may also lose access to precious information about their backgrounds that could help them enroll in their nations as adults.  In South Dakota, illegal state-sanctioned removal of Native American children– essentially kidnapping– is so widespread and culturally destructive that the Lakota Nation has complained to the U.N. that the practice constitutes genocide.

The removal of a Cherokee child to be raised by a white couple, when members of her immediate and extended family and her Nation are able to raise her, is precisely what the ICWA is intended to prevent.  The harm caused by this practice extends far beyond a single child and her family to endanger communities, Nations, and cultures.  And it does that harm regardless of whether a particular parent has or does not have custody.  You can read more about the background of this case at Indian Country Today Media Network, and can give general legal support to tribes through the Native American Rights FundThe Lakota People’s Law Project works specifically to strengthen and enforce ICWA, and to effect the return of over 2200 Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota children who have been taken from their homes illegally.

Second: As most people probably know by now, a key section of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional despite extensive evidence cited by Congress in 2006 that its formula for requiring preclearance is still needed.  While other protections of the Voting Rights Act are still in place, the section requiring that jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination obtain preclearance before putting election changes into effect was an important protection for voters at risk of disenfranchisement.  Several states have already stated that they will put into effect discriminatory laws such as ID requirements that would once have required (and probably not obtained) preclearance.  In many such jurisdictions, the civil rights of racial and language minorities, particularly African Americans, are gravely at risk.

This decision is itself unconstitutional: the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments allow Congress to do exactly what it has done with the Voting Rights Act until now.  It is also, of course, immoral and racist.  But it is also– and this is what I will be telling the volunteers answering phones for my elected representatives– unpatriotic and a dishonor to the memory of some of America’s greatest heroes.  Racial slavery and the political systems related to it, including Jim Crow, are modern atrocities that stand out, not only in American history, but in human history.  The moral vision and courage of abolitionists and civil rights activists was and is awe-inspiring, and our racist society heaps shame upon shame when we fail to acknowledge this– as Tuesday’s decision did.  The products of their work, including the Voting Rights Act, are among our most precious gifts as Americans and as human beings.  We simply cannot let them go.

To that end, Free to Vote is a campaign to add an affirmative right to vote to the Constitution and establish minimum standards nationwide to protect access to the vote for all citizens.  You can also sign on to support Restore Voting Rights, the campaign to update the Voting Rights act and allow it to function again with a new formula to require preclearance.  Of course, you can and should call your elected representatives and let them know how important voting rights are to you.

While I find public health and research ethics interesting for their own sake, the moral vision of this blog is that, as professionals, we should commit to using our incredible privileges for the betterment of society at every possible place where our activities intersect with other human beings.  If you share my opinion, there is no need to sit impotently in sadness and frustration about the state of our democracy.  Together, we can use our gifts to do what’s right.

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