The Ethics of Health


While many scholars of international relations focus on security issues, military affairs, and war, Debra DeLaet has always been drawn to more everyday political issues, over time becoming more deeply engaged in global health and human rights challenges. “There’s an obvious intersection with ethics there.”

As DeLaet, professor of politics and international relations, begins her appointment as the new Herb and Karen Baum Chair of Ethics and the Professions, she’s driven by an overarching inquiry: In everyday life, how can we promote and achieve change to improve the well-being of populations, affect the longevity and quality of human life, and protect human rights?

Health professionals, she says, are pivotal.

“In my field there’s a tendency to focus on and presume that organizations created exclusively for the purpose of human rights advocacy are the best vehicles for promoting change,” says DeLaet of groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. While DeLaet stresses that such organizations are doing important work, she points to the power of organ-izations created for other purposes. “In some cases where there’s been a successful change of culture, it happens not because you have a human rights advocacy organization condemning a practice but because you have an association of health professionals working with other community leaders to nudge toward change,” she explains, describing successful community efforts to reduce the incidence of harmful traditional practices such as nontherapeutic genital cutting and shifts in medical training programs that incorporate the public dimensions of health.

Such are the more subtle and less romanticized channels through which conversations, guidelines, practice, and recommendations can promote change, says DeLaet, the second Drake professor to hold the endowed position made possible by a $2 million gift to distinctlyDrake by Herb Baum, BN’59, and his wife, Karen, in 2010.

As chair, she plans to bring together students, staff, faculty, and community partners—through brown bag seminars and reading groups—to expand a conversation about ways to meet the fundamental health needs in the immediate community. Practitioners from health clinics, hospital physicians, Red Cross representatives, and groups working locally with refugees may all bring insight to the discussion, which must, stresses DeLaet, move beyond biological and behavioral factors.

“If we really want better population health outcomes, you have to address the socioeconomic determinants of health— which means poverty,” says DeLaet of what she predicts will be challenging discussions. “I hope to move us out of our silos—where those training, say, pre-med students are only covering the basic biological principles they need to master to be ready for med school. We need to broaden the education of undergraduate students, who may go on to work in any sort of health profession, to pay close attention to the social, political, and economic factors that shape health.”

Wider exposure is already happening at Drake. DeLaet points to the University’s Global and Comparative Public Health Concentration, through which students from multiple disciplines—including international relations, pharmacy and health sciences, and pre-med—are exposed to a wider mix of science and humanities than they might encounter in their core coursework.

During the second year of her appointment, DeLaet will organize a symposium on Ethics, the Professions, and the Promotion of Global Health. Instead of highlighting academic experts, DeLaet says she wants to gather health care practitioners that are modeling innovative approaches. “That might encourage faculty to consider other elements that they’re not currently bringing to their programs, and students to think differently about what their professional goals are.”

Recognizing possibilities for meaningful impact in everyday work, says DeLaet, can reveal more professional paths for students, who sometimes enter her classroom with narrow notions about changing the world. “So many of them want to work in humanitarian organizations or human rights NGOs. And the number of jobs there is so small. There are simply not enough professional spaces in those organizations for every student who wants to make that their career,” she says. “But every one of our students is going to work in a profession—business, health, law, education—and I want to use this position to educate students about how the work that many of them are more likely to do has deeply important ethical implications.”

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