Last Friday I was able to attend a talk at the Oregon Bioethics and Humanities Consortium lecture series. Dr. Maureen Kelley spoke about the complexities of ethical attention to vulnerability–in research, in clinical practice, and in public health initiatives. She challenged simplistic views that some people or groups of people are vulnerable and offered a model for thinking about layers of vulnerability (including political, economic, social and health-related factors). She also encouraged us to recognize agency, capacity, and sources of support that co-exist with vulnerabilities. In tension with the need to recognize and respond to vulnerability, Dr. Kelley spoke to the problems that come with being categorized as vulnerable or excluded (e.g., from research) based on that categorization. Likewise, she complicated the moral responsibilities of responding to vulnerability, encouraging us to consider: Are you in a position to help? Are you the right person to help? Is your help wanted? If yes, then we should help, and that requires recognizing the person as deserving of dignity and respect, engaging with them to see what they need, being mindful of how difficult their circumstances may be (including how difficult an offer of assistance might be), being aware of power differences, and noticing context.

A recording of Dr. Kelley’s talk and her slides from the talk are available at the OBHC site, alongside a list of previous speakers (with links to recordings of their talks). I recommend the lecture series! All that I have attended have created that exciting space where scholarly conversation engages with practice and social change.

Expecially exciting–the next lecture in the series is by Professor Elaine Hsieh. Elaine’s path and my own crossed at the University of Illinois and she is brilliant. I look forward to hearing her presentation on “Conceptualizing Culture in Healthcare Contexts: A Theoretical Framework.” And then after Elaine, there will be a talk by Dr. C. Estela Vasquez Guzman (she is also brilliant). I know Estela from working together in the Northwest Narrative Medicine Collaborative.