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ASH President: No Medical Merit to Sickle Cell Trait to Explain In-Custody Deaths

Response to New York Times investigation on sickle cell trait being cited in police custody deaths

(WASHINGTON, May 25, 2021) - The American Society of Hematology has issued an updated position statement asserting that it is medically inaccurate to claim sickle cell trait as a cause of death based solely on the presence of sickled cells at autopsy. ASH policy was updated in response to the recent investigation and coverage in The New York Times, How a Genetic Trait in Black People Can Give the Police Cover

In response to the article, ASH President Martin S. Tallman, MD, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center published a letter to the editor today and issued the following statement:

The use of sickle cell trait to cover up the deaths of Black people while in police custody is abhorrent and has no scientific or medical merit. Based upon our examination of the highest quality, up-to-date data, as expert hematologists and scientists, we decry the use of sickle cell trait as a cause or major contributor of death for Black people while in police custody. Sudden death is an extraordinarily rare occurrence in sickle cell trait and the finding of sickle cell trait is unlikely to supersede other inflicted traumas as the cause or major factor in death.

As reported by The New York Times, in two-thirds of the cases where sickle cell trait was incorrectly misinterpreted as the cause of death, the decedents had been forcefully restrained, beaten, pepper-sprayed, and/or shocked with stun guns. This incorrect characterization is without scientific or medical merit and is reminiscent of pseudoscience and biased beliefs used to justify unspeakable acts and injustices against select cohorts of people during humanity's darkest hours.

Anti-racism is a moral imperative to attain health equity and foster a more just society. Engaging in anti-racist praxis requires condemnation of racism however and whenever it manifests. Further education and training are necessary to end this injustice. ASH will be convening key stakeholders to debunk this misinformation and incorrect interpretation of sickle cell trait through ASH Anti-Racism in Hematology Taskforce and the work of the Sickle Cell Disease Coalition Sickle Cell Trait Taskforce.


The American Society of Hematology (ASH) (www.hematology.org) is the world’s largest professional society of hematologists dedicated to furthering the understanding, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disorders affecting the blood. For more than 60 years, the Society has led the development of hematology as a discipline by promoting research, patient care, education, training, and advocacy in hematology. ASH publishes Blood (www.bloodjournal.org), the most cited peer-reviewed publication in the field, and Blood Advances (www.bloodadvances.org), an online, peer-reviewed open-access journal.

Leah Enser, American Society of Hematology
[email protected], 202-552-4914