Dr. Terri Laws grew up in a church where there wasn’t really a distinction between Sunday and the rest of the week, out of necessity. Church and community life were intertwined, “so it was very natural to me that race, religion, and society always went together,” she says. Dr. Laws is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn where she teaches courses in the Health and Human Services Department and the African and African American Studies Program.
Her work is more than just a career, it’s a part of who she is, “it’s where my heart and mind live all the time…it’s something I’ve been unpacking my entire life.” She was born during the civil rights movement and has an early childhood memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination seared in her consciousness.
She remembers losing a close great aunt around the same time and seeing her dad cry for the first time. As a young child, she was forced to learn a lot of things in a short amount of time because of these tragedies and the social injustices of her time. “It taught me why there was no distinction between Sunday and the rest of the week,” she shared, “and that Sunday was the fuel for what we did the rest of the week.”
It wasn’t until she went to seminary and her doctoral program in religious studies that she was able to fully process and formulate all of these things she grew up witnessing and experiencing in her childhood. She combined her passion for working at the intersection of faith and society, by focusing on the injustices of health inequities suffered by underserved people in marginalized communities.
[My work at the intersection of race, religion and society] it’s where my heart and mind live all the time…it’s something I’ve been unpacking my entire life.”
The Ethics and Theology of the Body
When she was a graduate student at Rice University she began her dissertation research while completing a bioethics training and research fellowship at a local cancer hospital. The pipeline project was funded by the NIH as a means of developing more bioethics professionals from under-represented groups. The central question of the initiative was, “What are some of the moral constructs that might influence persons of color to participate in clinical trials?” Dr. Laws knew that “the moral constructs for many African Americans come out of their religious beliefs,” and so she reframed this question and rooted it in theology and the history and culture of the African American religious experience for her thesis work.
She became very interested in theological questions related to the body as well, and how the bodies that God has given us affect our different experiences on this earth. “What does it mean when poverty is experienced in a white body or a black body? Are there any differences? Let’s not shy away from these kinds of questions.”
She remembers noticing differences like this as a child. When she and her family moved to an integrating community she saw people treated differently because of the bodies they were in.
“At my school I saw kids from Appalachia were being treated poorly and differently than some of their white middle class counterparts. I can remember my seven year old self saying, ‘they get mistreated, and they’re not even Black. I remember asking, what in retrospect were very theological questions like, ‘What does it mean that God allows mistreatment to occur, and all these things that happen, in part because of the bodies that we are in?’”
What does it mean that God allows mistreatment to occur, and all these things that happen, in part because of the bodies that we are in?
Reexamining Tuskegee as More than a Historical Episode
Dr. Laws has started to unpack some of these questions in her own research through the lens of theology, religious studies, and medicine, by revisiting and reexamining the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Tuskegee is a historical case of medical malpractice and clinical research injustice to the African American community. Under the guise of studying Syphilis, doctors withheld treatment from men in Macon County, Alabama even after a cure became available in the 1950s. The study continued between 1932 and 1972. Dr. Laws describes it as such:
“As an episode in the history of medical exploitation, Tuskegee stands in a class of its own on the fact of its persistent, government-sanctioned dehumanization that deemed its Black male subjects more valuable dead than alive…It is not only ethically disturbing, it is deeply emotionally so. Tuskegee, then poses a dilemma for African Americans who seek solutions to health disparities.”
In her work, Dr. Laws has had the opportunity to visit Tuskegee University, where the research study was done, and meet family members of the men who were victims. “Some are still hurting,” says Dr. Laws, “they still have questions like ‘how could our own government do this to my father, or do this to my uncle or cousin? And ‘Was Syphilis passed down to me too?’”
Other family members have become strong advocates for African Americans to participate in clinical trials to improve medical treatments that work for broad swaths of the population, thus reducing health disparities. She believes there is a lot of healing that still needs to happen, but we have to understand the depth and complexity of Tuskegee first.
“Tuskegee was more than just a historical episode itself, it carries very very deep cultural meaning. The collective experience is so profound that it resonates well beyond the physical experience of those who experienced mistreatment first handedly. It is raised to the level of the sacred for other members of the community or other persons who share something phenotypically, or socially with persons who have similar bodies.”
Dr. Laws also strongly believes that we need to do something about the injustices related to health because they are still happening today. Whole communities are still without safe drinking water, such as those in Flint Michigan, and COVID has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities with death and illness.
But where there is much sorrow and suffering, there is room for healing and joy. Dr. Laws says, “The Scriptures tell us to ‘mourn with those who mourn’, and that ‘joy comes in the morning’. So we don’t overlook someone’s mourning, we don’t overlook someone’s tragedy, whether that’s a group tragedy or an individual’s tragedy.” She believes that if we can understand the mourning of others, we can progressively work towards the recovery of all people experiencing the best of our healthcare system, and towards the joy referenced in Scripture.
“The Scriptures tell us to ‘mourn with those who mourn’, and that ‘joy comes in the morning’. So we don’t overlook someone’s mourning, we don’t overlook someone’s tragedy…if we can understand the mourning of others, we can progressively work towards the recovery of all people experiencing the best of our healthcare system, and towards the joy referenced in Scripture.”
A Practical and Contextualized Gospel
The gospel has always had very practical implications for Dr. Laws, and it cannot be decontextualized from society and the lives that we live. When it comes to faith and science discourse, she believes this is especially true. The questions we ask should always be rooted in an ethic of practical application answering, “why does this matter?” and “to what end?” Whether we are talking about galaxies, evolution, or climate change, she believes that it is important to connect these topics to concrete aspects of the human experience. “God wants us to have a relationship with him, but God also wants us to have a relationship with each other. God wants us to understand how our lives and decisions impact others.”
Recently, Dr. Laws has been doing work to address health policies such as medical aid in dying and vaccine hesitancy in communities of color. In her work, she makes a clear distinction that the COVID vaccine is not Tuskegee because, “(treatment) isn’t being withheld, it’s being offered to everyone.” Another key part of this work has been emphasizing a message of care for one another.
When it comes to faith and science discourse…the questions we ask should always be rooted in an ethic of practical application answering, “why does this matter?” and “to what end?”
In an interview with the University of Michigan News, she says that, “a message that dignifies people and shows that you care about their humanity is something that resonates whether someone comes from a marginalized community or not.”
May we care for those around us, love our neighbors well, and honor the dignity in all our fellow humans.
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