Providence College Centennial

Global health leaders speak on human rights at Providence College


PROVIDENCE — Three leaders in global health and biomedical research visited Providence College on Thursday, March 16, closing out the college’s Centennial Presidential Speaker Series with a panel on “Global Health and Human Rights.”

Speakers included Dr. Robert Gallo ’59, a biomedical researcher best known for his co-discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS; Dr. Paul Farmer, a human rights advocate and co-founder of global health organization Partners In Health; and Dr. Jennie Weiss Block, Farmer’s chief advisor and a Dominican laywoman who has written extensively on Catholic social teaching as it relates to health and development.

Farmer led the discussion, walking students through his early days as a medical student providing services to residents of squatter settlements in rural Haiti. What began as a single community-based health project would eventually grow into Partners In Health, a global organization that operates clinics and provides health advocacy for the poor in 10 countries. Though secular, Farmer told the students that many of the organization’s founding principles as well as his own philosophy on human rights were strongly influenced by Catholic social teaching, particularly the liberation theology of Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, with whom he later authored a book.

“The general point that I’d like to share with the students that I did not understand at all for the first 20 years of this work is that health as a human right is tied intimately to global health equity,” he said. “That is, the idea that poor people or black people, brown people, whatever you want to say, deserve care that’s at least as good as that which I might receive. Why do I say at least as good? Well, the Catholics added on something else – a preferential option for the poor.”

Farmer’s mission of providing preferential medical treatment to those with the fewest resources has led him to advocate for the poor on a world stage, including at the UN, where he served as a Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti from 2009 to 2012. His work continues to be shaped by his commitment to human rights and the conviction that all individuals, regardless of birth or income, are entitled to proper care.

“Health care as a human right is a critical notion no matter what other notions,” he told his audience. “There are always going to be people who are shut out by an insurance scheme, by an out of pocket payment, the list goes on and on, and that’s why I think it’s worth fighting to keep this notion alive.”

Dr. Block, who worked for many years as a consultant to nonprofit organizations prior to joining Farmer’s staff, spoke further about the religious foundations of a human rights approach to global health. Drawing on her experience as a Dominican laywoman, she pointed out the long history of Dominicans promoting human rights through their scholarship and advocacy, most recently at an international Dominican congress on human rights that took place in Salamanca, Spain, last September.

“An integral and central aspect of the Dominican charism is the work of peace and justice which includes the promotion and defense of human rights,” said Block. “Indeed as the Dominicans celebrate our 800th anniversary, I think we can turn to the promotion and defense of human rights as a way to renew our mission.”

Dr. Gallo, the final speaker of the panel, focused his discussion on the current challenges and initiatives in infectious disease research. One of the college’s most esteemed alumni, Gallo’s work in the field of HIV/AIDS research as well as his work researching leukemia, herpes and other cancers has led to the development of treatments still used by many of his former medical students, including Farmer. Recalling early experiments he carried out as a biology student at the college’s Albertus Magnus Hall, Gallo encouraged his student audience to consider a career in virology, a branch of the medical field he said has been suffering a decline in the number of new researchers working on treatments for infectious disease.

“You stop to think about it, how do we know we’ll have enough people in an important field like virology? Depends on somebody in college – or somebody in medical school, university, graduate school – stimulating that person in that direction,” he said.

The panel closed with a question and answer session featuring students and faculty. In response to a question about the impact of the presidential administration’s policies on access to health care, Farmer emphasized the importance of viewing health care not as a partisan issue or the responsibility of a particular group, but as a moral issue for which all are responsible.

“Rights models are our last defense against the commodification of everything including science,” he said. “If anything is going to happen in this country in terms of access to quality care, it has to be a moral struggle.”