Black women and Native American women are more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women in America, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vice President Kamala Harris has made maternal health a key piece of her domestic policy agenda. For Wanda Irving, whose daughter died after giving birth, a national response can’t come fast enough. VOA’s Laurel Bowman has the story. Camera: Saqib Ul Islam, Adam Greenbaum, Mike Burke
The U.S. Senate has passed a $280 billion initiative that would boost domestic production of microchips and provide support for a key industry that competes with overseas countries including China. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson reports.
The United Nations AIDS program says progress is stalling on ending HIV/AIDS as a public health crisis by 2030 and action is needed to get it back on track.
The UNAIDS program issued its assessment in a new report pointing to recent data that showed 1.5 million people were newly infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That is over a million more new infections than the global estimate set by the United Nations. The report found that in the span of a year, the AIDS pandemic took one life every minute, around 650,000 deaths.
Mary Maby, the director for impact with UNAIDS, called those deaths preventable. She notes effective HIV treatment and tools to prevent, detect, and treat opportunistic infections are available but are not provided equitably across the world.
Among those disproportionately affected by new infections, she says, are young women and adolescent girls.
“Adolescent girls and young women are three times as likely to acquire HIV as adolescent boys and young men in sub-Saharan Africa. While men are less likely than women to obtain anti-retroviral therapy or achieve viral suppression, this leads to continued new infections in their female partners,” said Maby.
The report finds new HIV infections have been rising for several years in eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Middle East, North America, and Latin America. It says new infections are rising in Asia and the Pacific, the world’s most populous region. Officials say the rise is particularly alarming as infections in the region previously had been falling.
Maby says the picture in sub-Saharan Africa is mixed.
“East and southern Africa, West and Central Africa are still seeing declines,” said Maby. “But the east and southern Africa decline is slowing down. That rate in which it was dropping before is not as fast as it was before. West and Central Africa have seen a rapid increase in treatment, mostly in Nigeria, which is slowing the epidemic as well in terms of new infections.”
The report says global disruptions, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have slowed many HIV prevention efforts. Those crises, it notes, have created difficulties for many people to access services to receive the lifesaving treatment they need.
The assessment comes ahead of the 24th International AIDS Conference being held in Montreal, Canada and virtually this week. The talks run from July 29th through August 2.
When images beamed back to Earth by NASA’s largest, most powerful space telescope were released earlier this month, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio shared one of them on Twitter accompanied by a Bible verse: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
The Webb telescope is orbiting the sun nearly two million kilometers from Earth. The observatory is on a mission to locate the universe’s first galaxies using extremely sensitive infrared cameras. The initial images released to the public provided the first-ever glimpse of ancient galaxies lighting up the sky.
The reaction to Rubio’s post was inundated with remarks like, “You do realize you can only see that due to science?” And, “If only you were scientifically literate enough to understand all of the ways that this image disproves your mythology.”
Reason versus superstition?
The skeptical comments are emblematic of the long-standing, ongoing debate about whether science and religion can be reconciled.
“There are a gazillion religions, each one making a different set of claims about reality, not just about the nature of God, but about history, about miracles, about what happened. And they’re all different, so they can’t all be true,” says Jerry A. Coyne, an evolutionary biologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.
Coyne, who likens religion to superstition, wrote a book called, “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.”
“The incompatibility is that both science and religion make statements about what is true in the universe,” Coyne says. “Science has a way of verifying them and religion doesn’t. So, science is based on this sort of science toolkit of empirical reasoning or duplication experiments, whereas religion is based on faith.”
Coyne says he was raised a secular Jew and became an atheist as a teenager.
“Scientists are, in general, much less religious than the general public. And the more accomplished you get as a scientist, the less religious you become,” he says.
A 1998 survey found that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the U.S., don’t believe in God.
“I personally think there’s a couple of reasons for that,” says Kenneth Miller, a devout Roman Catholic and professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry at Brown University in Rhode Island. “One of them, to be perfectly honest, is the out-and-out hostility that many religious institutions or many religious groups display towards science. And I think that tends to drive people with deep religious faith away from science.”
Mixing science and faith
Some of the world’s foremost scientists have been people of faith, however.
The Big Bang theory, which explains the origins of the universe, was first proposed by a Catholic priest who was also an astronomer and physics professor.
Frances Collins, the former head of the National Institutes of Health who headed the international effort that first mapped the entire human genome, is a one-time atheist who now identifies as an evangelical Christian.
Farouk El-Baz, a professor in the departments of archaeology and electrical and computer engineering at Boston University, says most of his scientific colleagues see no conflict between science and religion. For El-Baz, the son of an Islamic scholar, the marvel of the Webb telescope’s discoveries deepens both.
“Science actually underlines the importance of religion because God told us that He created the Earth and the heavens,” says El-Baz, who is also director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. “And the heavens, there are supposed to be all kinds of things out there. And scientific investigations have actually proved that, yes, there are all kinds of things out there.”
Evolution, creationism or both
For many, the conflict between science and religion is often rooted in the perceived incongruity between creationism — which suggests that a divine being created Earth and the heavens — and evolution, which holds that living organisms developed over 4.5 billion years.
Miller accepts the theory of evolution and says much of scripture is metaphorical, an explanation of the relationship between Creator and His creation in language that could be understood by people living in a prescientific age.
“[The book of] Genesis, taken literally, is a recent product of certain religious interpretations of scripture,” Miller says. “In particular, it’s an interpretation that became quite influential in the latter part of the 19th century among Christian fundamentalists in the United States. And the reality is that much of scripture is figurative rather than literal.”
Jewish tradition also accepts evolution, according to intellectual historian Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, who suggests that the rise of the religious Christian right in the United States also influenced more observant Jews to harden their position against evolution.
“Medieval Jewish philosophy basically followed the Muslim paradigm,” says Tirosh-Samuelson, a professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University. “The Muslim theologians and the Muslim scholars showed Jews how you can integrate a monotheistic tradition together with Greek and Hellenistic science … and showed how scientific knowledge is always a tool that enables you to understand the divinely created world better.”
Vision of God
In Miller’s view, the concept of God as a designer who worked out every intricate detail of every single living thing is too narrow a vision of the Creator.
“The God that is revealed by evolution is not a God who has to literally tinker with every little piece of trivia in every living organism, but rather a God who created a universe in a world where the very physical conditions of matter and energy were sufficient to accomplish his ends,” Miller says. “And to me, that conception of God creating this extraordinary process that nature itself allows to come about is a much grander vision than a God who has to concern himself with every little detail.”
El-Baz says some people fear that science will reduce their religiosity, but the reverse is true for him.
“We understood through God’s guidance that humans evolved from other creatures, and evolution is still going on, and there’s absolutely no conflict between what science and religion are informing us,” he says. “It’s very easy to consider that a creator, or a force of creation — God or whatever faith you have — that it’s a force that put all of these things together, that created all of this.”
Tirosh-Samuelson says Judaism is not a literalist tradition but rather favors open ended interpretation, which is in keeping with her reaction to the Webb discoveries.
“The grandeur of the universe. The grandeur of God. The grandeur of the human. And in my view, there’s no contradiction between those three. On the contrary, there’s a lot of complementarity between the three,” she says.
“Jewish culture is really pretty much open to discussion and debate about practically every topic. So, there’s something very much in accord with the scientific spirit of inquiry, questioning, uncertainty, skepticism. That’s exactly the opposite of a position that is about certainty and rigidity and closed-mindedness.”
On the 32nd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. remains one of a handful of countries that have not ratified the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) — an international treaty the U.S. legislation inspired.
The ADA, signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, prohibits discrimination based on disability in public accommodations, employment, transportation and community living, and provides recourse for people with disabilities who faced discrimination.
“It’s hard for the newer generation to imagine the injustices suffered before the ADA,” President Joe Biden said Tuesday in a House Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus event to celebrate the ADA’s anniversary. Biden, who is still in isolation from his COVID-19 diagnosis, delivered his remarks virtually.
“If you’re disabled, stores can turn you away, and employers can refuse to hire you. If you use a wheelchair, there was no accommodation to take the bus or train to school or to work. America simply wasn’t built for all Americans,” Biden said.
The administration on Tuesday announced $1.75 billion to make it easier for people with disabilities to get on board the nation’s public transportation systems, including $343 million to help agencies retrofit train and subway stations built prior to the disabilities act.
During the caucus event, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats will not give up trying to ratify the CRPD. A National Security Council spokesperson told VOA the administration “would certainly support its ratification.”
However, with only 48 Democrats and two independents in the 100-seat U.S. Senate, and an urgent legislative agenda in the pipeline, it is unlikely that the Biden White House will take up the matter anytime soon.
Global disability movement
Since its passing, the ADA has inspired disability laws in various countries and sparked a movement for disability rights around the world that culminated in the CPRD. The U.S. also provided technical assistance during the convention’s negotiation and drafting process.
The CPRD came into force in 2008 and was signed by President Barack Obama in 2009. But in 2012, it fell five votes short of the two-thirds majority required for the U.S. Senate to adopt it, largely due to a reluctance to submit to international law on a domestic policy matter.
Out of 193 U.N. member countries, 185 have ratified the CRPD that aims to promote, protect and ensure full and equal enjoyment of all human rights for persons with disabilities.
“We’re always very much open and honest in recognizing we haven’t ratified the CRPD,” Sara Minkara, special adviser on international disability rights, told VOA.
Minkara, who is legally blind, leads the Office of International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State, which promotes the rights of persons with disabilities around the world through American diplomacy and development aid. The position was created under the Obama administration, and her office was made permanent by the Biden administration last November.
In various countries, views on people with disabilities often fall between pity or inspiration from their suffering, Minkara said, and those extreme narratives contribute to societies leaving people with disabilities behind.
“We need to normalize disability. We need to change how we look at the word disability. We need to change how we look at disabilities and identities, not from a pity lens but from a strength and value-based lens.”
The administration says it supports “disability-inclusive development and humanitarian action” around the world.
However, there is no mechanism to ensure full disability inclusion in U.S. foreign assistance, said Eric Rosenthal, executive director of the advocacy group Disability Rights International.
“You can offer your assistance and say our assistance is available to all people, but the truth is, people with disabilities have a hard time finding the aid,” Rosenthal told VOA. “There has to be more active outreach efforts.”
People with intellectual disabilities, psychiatric and psychosocial disabilities are particularly vulnerable, Rosenthal said. In many places, they are often stripped of legal rights and put away in institutions.
“There are very serious human rights violations against them in most countries, and the advocacy movements are usually way behind the advocacy movements for other disability groups,” Rosenthal said. “So, that’s an example of a very at-risk group that needs to be targeted for more attention.”
Disability Rights International and other groups have endorsed a concept for a U.S. bill to support the efforts of disability advocates worldwide to stop children with disabilities from being institutionalized, where they often face serious neglect and abuse.
Katherine Gypson and Cindy Saine contributed to this report.0
Aid workers say deep poverty and harsh living conditions lead to hopelessness among Idlib’s youth