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October 01, 2007

Human Rights Hero: Dr. Steven Miles

by Jeffery Kahn

The term “Human Rights Hero” was coined with Dr. Steven Miles in mind. As a physician who also works in bioethics, Steve has dedicated his career to taking heroic stands on issues of ethics and human rights, whether addressing the needs of refugees in Southeast Asia, protecting the rights of residents of nursing homes in the United States, or exposing the abuse of detainees interrogated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Steve’s commitment to human rights, now well recognized after decades of effort, began professionally when he helped to build clinics and to provide medical care in the refugee camps of Southeast Asia during the 1970s. As he works from the platform of an academic appointment at the University of Minnesota, the combination of direct service and policy work has become the hallmark of Steve’s career. Affiliated with the university’s Center for Bioethics and its Medical School, Steve focuses on patient care and policy work in bioethics alike. This merging of disciplines and concepts, reinforced by frequent trips to disaster areas, has kept him in the trenches yet able to work with great effect at the macro level. The commitment and the content of his work make Steve Miles the model of a public global citizen.

Steve’s efforts have aided refugees and their communities, often in the hardest hit parts of the world: Cambodia after the Viet Nam War, Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The theme linking them is the immense need faced by those in difficult situations and Steve’s sense that individuals and communities deserve better as a matter of human rights—and that direct action is what it takes to meet their needs. Steve has likewise fought battles on behalf of everyday Americans least able to fight for themselves. He nearly single-handedly exposed flaws in bed rail and mattress design and use in nursing homes that were causing the choking and suffocation of patients. Without the voice he provided, this little-known but serious problem would not have been exposed. Instead, lawsuits were filed, federal regulators were prompted to act, and manufacturers made the necessary modifications to their products, all of which had the direct effect of reducing unnecessary deaths. As usual with Steve, there wasn’t any fanfare, but there was great effect.

Steve’s most recent work—and in many ways his most revealing—has focused on uncovering and making public the involvement of health care professionals in the interrogation practices carried out as part of the “war on terror.” After the initial disclosure of the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Steve wondered who within the military was involved in the interrogations and how their conduct as military personnel squared with their personal and professional responsibilities. Working through reams of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Steve uncovered facts that added depth and an understanding of the complicity of health professionals in actions that had already shocked the world.

These efforts take their toll, both physically and emotionally, yet Steve has been and remains willing to make those sacrifices for the good of those who have few other champions. Too many in bioethics are satisfied with talking about doing the right thing. Steve acts, and he is not satisfied until he accomplishes the changes he envisions. For these qualities and his good work over three decades, Steve Miles is a true Human Rights Hero. The world needs more like him.

Jeffery Kahn

Jeffrey Kahn is the Mass Family Endowed Chair in Bioethics and director of the Center for Bioethics and a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.