Pioneering University HIV/AIDS researcher sacked over accurate but politically incorrect court testimony
Dr. Brendan Bain, a pioneer in fighting HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, lost his research position at University of West Indies after submitting expert report in landmark Belize case.
The attacks on a University of Virginia law professor for expressing legal views not in keeping with the views of some LGBT activists and much of the political establishment has created a stir in legal academia.
In Jamaica, a somewhat analogous case is developing regarding a recently retired professor who was fired from his continuing HIV/AIDS research position after filing an accurate, but politically incorrect, expert report in a highly contentious case in Belize (h/t Blazing Cat Fur). The case has received almost no attention outside the Caribbean press, and none in the U.S. as far as I can tell.
The background is that the Belize Supreme Court is considering a court case seeking to overturn Section 53 of the criminal code, which bans some forms of homosexual behavior, specifically male-on-male sodomy. Argument was held in May 2013 but there has been no decision as of this writing.
The highly charged nature of the case pits a coalition of international gay rights activists against some Christian churches and groups.
Enter Dr. Brendan Bain, who retired as a Professor in 2013 from the University of West Indies. While still a professor, in 2012 Dr. Bain submitted testimony in the form of an Expert Report in the case (embedded in full at the bottom of this post).
Dr. Bain is one of the pioneers in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, as detailed in the introduction to his Expert Report, and in the numerous news reports referenced later in this post.
Among other things, even after his retirement as a professor Dr. Bain was director of the U.S.-funded Regional Coordinating Unit of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART), which he helped create. Here is his bio from 2013 from the CHART website:
Dr. Brendan Bain is Professor of Community Health at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Coordinator of the UWI HIV/AIDS Response Programme (UWI HARP) and Director of the Regional Coordinating Unit of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training Network (CHART). He is trained in internal medicine, clinical infectious diseases, and public health. He has worked as a Consultant Physician at the University Hospital of the West Indies for 25 years and has been a leader in AIDS care and treatment in Jamaica. He is an advisor on HIV/AIDS to the Jamaican Ministry of Health and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.Dr. Bain has been a pioneer Clinical Infectious Diseases Lecturer and Attending Physician at the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI), Mona, Jamaica since 1980. He is a former Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Infectious Diseases and was part of a team of doctors who reported the first case of AIDS to be recognized in Jamaica in 1983. He is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of International Health of the Boston University School of Public Health.
Dr. Bain has served as an advisor on pharmaceuticals and infectious diseases to the Jamaican Ministry of Health since 1980. He is an active member of the Pan-Caribbean Partnership against AIDS (PANCAP) and sat on its first Board. He is an inaugural member of the Trans-Caribbean HIV/AIDS Research Initiative (TCHARI), established in 2006 with support from the US National Institutes of Health. In 1989-1990, Dr. Bain was appointed by the Jamaican Ministry of Health as the first National HIV/AIDS Staff Trainer for hospital and laboratory personnel. In that capacity, he designed and led a series of on-site workshops and seminars for all categories of staff in the 21 public hospitals of Jamaica and their associated microbiology and pathology laboratories.In the 1990s, he led the first national educational workshops on HIV/AIDS for healthcare personnel in Belize and the Cayman Islands. In August 1999, he started an out-patient clinic for persons living with HIV/AIDS at UHWI and has inspired the commencement of a similar clinic at the Kingston Public Hospital.
The Caribbean Health Leadership Institute describes the importance of Dr. Bain in fighing HIV/AIDS:
Brendan Bain is the Principal Investigator on the CDC grant to support the launch of the Caribbean Health Leadership Institute. He helped to start the UWI HIV/AIDS Response Programme (UWI HARP) in 2001 and serves as its Lead Coordinator. He also directs the Regional Coordinating Unit of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network, part of UWI HARP. He is one of the pioneers in Clinical Infectious Disease practice in the Caribbean and was responsible for launching the first medical clinic dedicated to the care and treatment of persons living with HIV/AIDS in Jamaica.
The general thesis of the Expert Report was as follows, in part:
This report shows that the relative risk of contracting HIV is significantly higher among men who have sex with other men (MSM) in Belize than in the general population. This is also true in several other countries for which data are available, including countries that have repealed the law that criminalizes anal sex and countries where the law still applies.
Dr. Bain did not take sides in the dispute, and his findings themselves are not the focus of controversy, as one observer who supports the repeal of the ban has noted:
If you haven’t read Prof Bain’s affidavit, I encourage you to do so. … It is difficult to find much objectionable in it. Most interestingly it doesn’t seem to take the militant stance that on one hand some Christians are celebrating, and on the other, HIV/AIDS workers are criticizing him for. For the most part the document simply makes the undisputable point that for both biological and social/cultural/behavioural reasons — the HIV virus is passed on to Men who have sex with Men with something that approaches efficiency. The figures are simply staggering…. Bain’s affidavit does not take or register a stance against gay communities or gay men. It earnestly steers clear from such opinions and tries to stick to the figures….
The Jamaican National AIDS Committee issued a statement that it had no problem with the content of Dr. Bain’s report:
The National AIDS Committee wishes to clarify that it takes no issue with the content of the Report of Professor Brendan Bain to the Court in Belize. There is nothing in that Report which is contrary to or offensive to the work of the National AIDS Committee.
In his report, Professor Bain highlighted for the court that homosexual men were at higher risk of contracting HIV and other sexual transmitted infections and that a supportive environment is needed at the community and governmental levels to enable high risk groups to access and practice safe sex.
This is the very position of the National AIDS Committee….
Rather, Dr. Bain’s mere participation in the case and seeming to render an opinion that arguably helps defenders of the Belize law upset a coalition of activists, who demanded Dr. Bain’s removal from his position as the head of CHART, as The Jamaica Gleaner reported:
Some 35 advocacy groups, under the banner of the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, had written to the vice-chancellor of the UWI, Professor E. Nigel Harris, to indicate that they had lost confidence in Bain as the head of CHART, following his statement in the case, submitted in 2012, and called for him to be removed.
The Coalition’s full statement is here, and reads in part:
We thank retired Professor Brendan Bain, with whom many of us once worked productively and collegially, for his acknowledged contributions to fighting HIV in the region, and we reaffirm our respect for his freedom to express his personal views in academic and other settings.
It is not his right to have deeply held views that has been at issue, but the evident conflict of his action to rob some of justice and equality before the law with his capacity to represent UWI’s values in leading an HIV movement working for health and justice for all.
The university has been careful to note the hurt Professor Bain’s advocacy has done to gay and lesbian persons in the Caribbean….
And so it happened, Dr. Bain was removed from the position he helped create:
The UWI, in its statement announcing Bain’s dismissal, said that “Many authorities familiar with the brief presented believe that Professor Bain’s testimony supported arguments for retention of the law, thereby contributing to the continued criminalisation and stigmatisation of MSM. This opinion is shared by the lesbian, gay and other groups who are served by CHART”.
The university also said that while it recognises Bain’s right to provide expert testimony in the manner he did, “it has become increasingly evident that he has lost the confidence and support of a significant sector of the community which the CHART programme is expected to reach”.
The removal has created a great deal of controversy in Belize and Jamaica, much of which is religious in nature, but also revolving around freedom of speech and academic freedom:
The Jamaican Bar Association and the Medical Association of Jamaica came out strongly in defense of Dr. Bain:
OPPOSITION to the sacking of Professor Brendan Bain continued to mount Friday as the influential Jamaican Bar Association (Jambar) took the University of the West Indies (UWI) to task while expressing concern that the controversial decision could have an adverse impact on experts giving testimony in Jamaica…
The Bar Association also sided with the Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) on the issue of the veracity of scientific conclusion, saying that it “should only be challenged on the basis of science and not on emotion or sentiment its conclusions may evoke”.
The MAJ and Jambar concurred that statements of fact are never meant to be offensive. They insisted that as an expert witness, Bain’s “testimony to the Court is a duty to the Court, and is the opinion of the expert himself. He is therefore obliged to discharge his testimony truthfully and professionally”.
The Medical Association of Jamaica was disappointed by the firing, as reported by the Jamaica Gleaner:
The Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) has expressed disappointment over the termination of Professor Brendan Bain as the director of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Regional Training (CHART) Network.
Dr Shane Alexis, president of the MAJ, said last night that the MAJ’s discontent over the fracas between the parties involved was based on the shifting of the focus from the prevention of HIV to differences in opinions and individual agendas.
“The MAJ is disappointed that one of the pioneers in the diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS is no longer leading CHART. We want to encourage everyone, all stakeholders, to focus on HIV/AIDS and not against each other,” Alexis told The Gleaner.
Carolyn Cooper, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, who supports repeal of the Belize law, protested the termination:
I do support repeal of the Belize law that criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any person or animal”. But I am appalled by the decision of the UWI administration to bow to belligerent gay-rights activists, bringing down disgrace on a distinguished academic who has done so much to protect the health of MSM [Men having Sex with Men].
Even within the gay rights community in the Caribbean, opinion is split over the firing.
The University of West Indies, however, disputes that it was forced to fire Dr. Bain or that it is a question of academic freedom, arguing instead that Dr. Bain’s submission of the report frayed his ability to work with constituent groups (full statement here):
UWI Vice Chancellor Professor E. Nigel Harris, told RJR News that the decision to relieve the Professor Bain of his duties, was not about the university caving in to pressure from influential and powerful gay rights lobby groups. He said, it is not an issue about Professor Bain’s academic freedom.
“But if he were a member of the academic community this would have no impact on his academic standing. This is not about his rights to give testimony, it is not about his rights as a Christian, it is not about the views that he might hold, this is about someone having a position in a programme which the university has been contracted to manage and really losing the confidence of the people in an important sector that the programme must reach.
There are wider implications, since CHART is funded under a grant from the U.S. government, as Jamaican attorney Gordon Robinson wrote in the Jamaica Gleaner:
Brendan Bain has been in charge of CHART from its inception in 2003 until now. The programme has recorded monumental successes. Bain led the team that wrote the grant application for the ongoing CHART project. As a result, the project was awarded a five-year grant for the period, April 2012-March 2017, valued in 2012 at US$ 9 million.
This grant is one of the largest UWI has received; is also the first grant awarded by the US Health Resources and Services Administration to a university outside the USA; and was awarded on the basis that Professor Bain was identified in the grant document as the principal investigator and project director.
There have been numerous protests so far, including one today at UWI, as posted on Facebook:
It will be interesting to see where this leads.
The press coverage in Jamaica has been fairly intense. The firing seems to transcend the prior framing of the dispute as churches versus gay rights.
Now it’s become about freedom of speech and academic freedom. Just like in the United States.