As scientists and health practitioners we make empirical arguments. We defend with logic. We articulate with evidence, references, and data. These are our skills. But what about the truths that double us over in grief, behind closed doors, in front of the news cycle? We may be brokers of information in the public, but we are also human beings. We are brought now to our knees, finding a way to compose empirical arguments about the sanctity of childhood and our shared humanity.
It is an eviscerating and dehumanizing proposition to have to argue in public for the rights of children to not be separated from their families. It does not matter the color or your skin, your immigration status, the balance in your bank account: childhood is a sacred and holy liminal window for every child. When desecrated, it defiles all of our humanity and we are complicit for standing by. None of this moral outrage requires scientific training or expertise. All it requires is basic humanity.
There are many, many studies that lay out the short and long term damage caused by the trauma and violence of family separation. Neuroscience research demonstrates again and again the long term impacts of toxic stress on children’s brain development. Similarly, epidemiologic data demonstrate the lifetime of negative health outcomes associated with childhood adversity and trauma. Many of us do this research and write these manuscripts. To do so we are taught to step back, divorce ourselves from the very people we want to help, and then quantify their human suffering.
As both a defense mechanism and as a professional “skill,” we learn to not see the suffering of our “subjects” or “those people.” We empiricize and restrict the frame of our research so as to maintain our veneer of professional detachment and objectivity. But, more shamefully, we compartmentalize to protect against psychological pain of truly empathizing with our patients and research subjects.
And yet, what is this facade of professional detachment truly for, as women scientists, except to legitimize our scholarship within institutions built from a white supremacist and misogynistic culture? Why can we not simultaneously uphold the value of human life and develop robust and empirical approaches for studying it? Many scientists, ourselves included, are working to deconstruct this paradoxical and bankrupt expectation. When we begin to see the damage we do, to ourselves and others, by compartmentalizing our own humanity away from our professional expertise and service, we are forced to make a change. This moment can come in many forms. For us, it has looked like these stories:
When a public health researcher looks at a graph of maternal mortality rates and realizes that each data point represents a (frequently preventable) tragedy, and that one of those points could be her friend, her niece, or her cousin.
When a climate scientist internalizes the projections from her research, and realizes that the consequences of abrupt climate warming will change her life and her child’s life in dangerous, and yet preventable, ways.
When an engineer observes technology they painstakingly developed enables people to live their fullest possible lives.
When a biomedical researcher sits with the family of a patient with a terminal disease, but has to tell them that no new treatments are coming soon enough to help their loved one.
When a neuroscientist is working to understand how brain cells are damaged and die, and realizes this is currently happening in her own aging brain.
We can no longer uphold the delusion that our science is separate from our humanity. Within this united framework, centered on our humanity and the humanity of others, we become ever more invested in our scientific work, and the real world implications of our scholarship. Our scientific service, informed by our own humanity, is fundamentally stronger and better.
We are unwilling to look away from the scientifically documented damage and trauma being inflicted on children and families because of the violence, racism, and impunity of the Trump Administration. There is no difference between the human suffering of any parent, woman, or child, be they here in Seattle or alone in a detention center on the US border. Human emotions are the same. Our brains are the same. Our love for our children is the same. Our humanity is the same.
A horror of human rights abuses have been committed, and are currently being committed, in our names as US citizens due to the Trump Administration’s decision to separate children, toddlers, and infants from their families. For the parents suffering in detention after their children are torn from them, and for their children who will bear a lifetime of physiological and mental effects: your suffering is not a data point. It is a stain upon all our collective humanity - and we know this not just as scientists, but also as human beings.
We must use our privilege as US citizens to stand up, speak out, and refuse to be complicit in further human rights abuses at our national border. This is our right, and this is our duty. We see how the current administration uses dehumanization as a political tool, without care that such extreme childhood abuse leads directly to a public health crisis, along with a moral one. The time has come to gather our courage and our principles, alongside our data and empiricism, to do the difficult work of resisting institutionalized cruelty, xenophobia, and authoritarianism.
Our country, our children, our humanity, and our legacy are at stake. Who do we want to be?