Tuskegee students purchasing produce at the monthly Farmer’s Market Jam, one of the university’s programs aimed at assisting local underserved communities.

A university ethics center founded on a Presidential apology for unethical research has practical application written into its DNA. Today, The National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care at Tuskegee University continues a 20 plus-year tradition of addressing health, health disparities and social justice. The essential element, said Center Director Dr. Rueben Warren, is in listening to people impacted by public health decisions that have shaped their lived experiences.

The Center was one outcome of President Clinton’s 1997 Presidential Apology for the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, a 40-year study of untreated syphilis in African-American men in a rural Alabama county. The men were never told that they had syphilis; they did not give consent nor were they provided medical care.  The study provides a shameful example of exploitation based on race, sex, income and geography.

Populations matter in ethical public health decision-making, said Dr. Warren. He points to the disparity of ignoring communities of color in COVID-19 reporting.  While historic racial and ethnic health disparities place African American, Latinx and Native American people at disproportionate risk of COVID infections and death, needing to go to work without personal proactive equipment instead of working remotely is as important.

At Tuskegee University,  students prepare for leadership by identifying and solving  local challenges.  They’ve worked with local Black farmers to create an ongoing market that offers fresh fruits and vegetables to faculty, students and local residents.  Students apply ethics by participating in internships at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The students help re-frame public health ethics by asking questions that otherwise might not be asked.  “What you think is important,” said Dr. Warren, “is itself an ethical issue.”

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