Health Care

Health and Human Dignity: Spotlight Health Opening Remarks

June 21, 2018  • Dan Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered remarks at the 2018 Spotlight Health Opening Session. He spoke during the Aspen Ideas Festival in the Greenwald Pavilion on the campus of the Aspen Institute in Aspen, CO.

Good afternoon, and welcome to the fifth annual Spotlight Health.

Thank you, Peggy [Clark], for that lovely introduction and for your leadership with Ruth Katz, Katie Drasser, and your teams, for organizing an extraordinary series of discussions aimed at framing problems and finding solutions.

We have a number of interns and students here today, and I want to offer them a mentoring moment and share with them a little secret: When you start a new job and you’re invited to share your thoughts, say what you mean. That’s the best way to introduce yourself. And I’m going to try and do that tonight.

The conference organizers have brought in leaders from all over the world to talk about medical breakthroughs, unpack scientific advances, and examine the transformative promise—and risk—of technology.

One theme you’ll hear often over the next few days is disruption, for good and for ill. There is an enormous amount of change taking place right now, from how we provide health care in the U.S. and fight cancer in Africa to how we harness the power of design thinking and implement strategies to reduce the cost of medicine. We will take you to the cutting-edge of genetics, propose novel ways to prevent chronic disease, and share insights about the microbiome. And we’ll talk about where visionaries and venture capitalists think we’ll go next.

I love the array of themes. I love the array of backgrounds that we represent. I love the cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary, evidence-based, results-oriented methodologies we employ at the Aspen Institute.

It’s especially important that we work in a non-partisan, open-minded way, gathering perspectives inclusively, willing to entertain ideas that don’t appeal to us, unafraid of dissonance, always asking critically if we have drawn enough voices to the table and done so respectfully.

I suspect that there are a few core convictions shared by us all.

One, for example, is that advances in access and excellence in health care offer the people of our planet a greater quality of life than ever before—and thus we must keep questioning, keep learning, keep researching, keep discovering, and keep sharing the tools and treatments that can enable still greater human flourishing.

A second conviction is that it’s a lot smarter for any society to prevent illnesses than to resort only to treating them, and that it’s also a lot smarter to empower people to take care themselves rather than scrambling around trying to save them and stop the spread of further harm in desperate moments after a preventable calamity.

A third conviction is that, in every country and culture, successful health systems and strategies will benefit everything else, from job quality to learning outcomes, from innovation to gender equity, from family stability to job creation and from local empowerment to national security. It’s all deeply interdependent—but that’s true, too, when we have health system meltdowns.

And, surely, we all share the conviction that it matters to involve people in their own health care decisions, to give great weight to the choices people make about their lives, to respect and engage cultural values, to think of cultures as collections of assets and resources and wisdom, and always to bring an ethical sensibility to our conversations about who gets health care and what it is they get.

But the conviction upon which all these other convictions sit, I suspect, and I hope, is that we all believe fundamentally in the dignity and value of each and every person. All humans are equal, and no one is more human than anyone else. We all deserve the opportunity to develop our talents, to express our faiths, to care for our children and our elders, and to flourish.

I would argue that the greatest gift we have for the work that we call promoting health care equity is our capacity to respect the dignity of all people, and from that essential human power, then, we can develop the interest and empathy to accompany one another, and to try to see with each others’ eyes, and to try to bear each others’ burdens and celebrate each others’ joys, which also means we have to say “no” when one group of humans is being stigmatized or scapegoated and labelled as less than human.

I’m here with my wife Karen Herrling and two of our children, Caroline and Sarah. Their presence here reminds me of a paradox. We parents love our own children the most, and yet we are called to love all people the same. This is a paradox. What to do? For me, the answer is not to crumble beneath the contradiction but to try to create the conditions where everybody else’s children can live their best lives just like Karen and I hope for our daughters. This means that it is our work to help others build strong communities and good societies, because we believe in each person’s humanity and know the capacity of others to love their families precisely because of how intensely we love our own.

Because we believe in human dignity, I believe that we should try to avoid picking sides too quickly, or seizing upon any ready opportunity to score political points. Because we believe in human dignity, we should go the extra mile to avoid pre-judging others’ views, or sizing people up fast in order to shut them down and take away their seat from the table or negate the experiences that would bring them there.

That commitment to openness and inclusion comes from a love of humanity and a respect for the dignity of all. We tolerate, or include, or embrace, or protect views we don’t agree with partly out of practical problem solving, partly out of enlightened self-interest, partly perhaps out of a sense of the social contract, but mostly because respecting the dignity of others means we must give them their due. And quite often our own hearts and minds grow when we do that—even when it takes a strong spine to put up with ideas we wish we didn’t have to hear.

Which brings me to this … and thank you for listening. Because, out of our love of humans and human dignity, we work at being the most inviting, inclusive, non-partisan leaders and organizations we can be—and here I am talking about your organizations and mine, the Aspen Institute. We position ourselves also—as necessary, and probably rarely, and with thought—to speak aloud when we see in the actions of others a denial of human beings’ dignity and opportunity to flourish freely.

For that reason, as a health care advocate and as human, I believe that cigarettes should not be marketed to children. I believe that sex should not happen without consent. I believe that guns should be kept out of our schools. And I believe—with Pope Francis and former First Lady Laura Bush—that children at any border should not be taken from their parents like the U.S. government has done and placed in 95-degree cages with captors mocking their wails.

It’s precisely because we admit that we don’t have a monopoly on truth, it’s precisely because we protect the greatest range of thought and ideas, it’s precisely because we actively seek out contrary views and protect speakers’ rights, that we can then look without blinking into the face of an atrocity and say, no, not here, not to humans, never again.

One reason the Spotlight Health soil is so fertile for growing partnerships and solving problems is that that when we talk about health, we think in very broad terms. Those levers create a lot of common ground on which both audience members and speakers can meet.

Together, with you, I look forward to learning a great deal in the coming days. Thanks for being part of Spotlight Health.

And now, I’m thrilled to welcome to the stage Margaret Low, the President of AtlanticLIVE, our media partner in Spotlight Health.