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Crude sickle cell joke offends in 'Ted 2'

Tiahna Hughes, like other preteens, enjoys funny movies. Many of Tiahna's older friends have been going to the new NBCUniversal release "Ted 2." But the movie, which features a trash talking animated teddy bear, makes fun of sickle cell disease. Tiahna, who lives in Illinois, has suffered with the disease since birth, so she doesn't find that very funny.

"Ted 2," written by "Family Guy" creator and Grammy nominee Seth MacFarlane, follows a teddy bear who yearns to be a husband and a father. At one point the teddy bear, voiced by Mr. MacFarlane, and his best friend John, played by Mark Wahlberg, go in for boyish high jinks at a sperm bank. They accidentally knock down a shelving unit and end up covered in "rejected" donations from men with sickle cell disease. Ted says John is covered in "black guys' sperm."

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According to New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, multiplex audiences viewing the scene literally didn't know how to respond. Some tittered nervously, others groaned. There was general "uneasiness." Well, yes. After South Carolina. After Black Lives Matter, it's hard to have a jolly time when people are suffering.

Mr. MacFarlane, who is scheduled to perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra July 16, clearly knows nothing about sickle cell disease, a genetic condition. Here are just a few facts for the people in Hollywood writing politically incorrect shows by day and going to politically correct fundraisers by night: Contrary to the implication of "Ted 2," sickle cell disease is not limited to people of African descent. The disease occurs in people from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey as well as countries in the Caribbean, Middle East and Asia. It affects 1 in 500 African Americans and 1 in 36,000 Hispanics in the U.S.

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Also, contrary to the suggestion of "Ted 2," men with sickle cell disease can safely father children. Only if both parents have the trait can the disease be passed down. In that instance, the chance of passing down the hereditary disorder is about one in four.

It is, of course, a very serious disorder. The sickle cells can block the flow of blood through vessels resulting in lung tissue damage, horrible pain episodes in the arms, legs, chest and abdomen, stroke, damage to organs and even death. Therapies are available, but as yet, there is no universal cure. People with the disease can expect to live into their 40s.

You might say, this doesn't seem the stuff of comedy, but down through history sick people have been lampooned. In the 1950s people were ridiculed for having cancer. Cancer carried a terrible stigma and people with the disease didn't even speak of it to close family members. Today cancer advocates are letting their voices be heard, and people are not only listening but learning.

In the 1980s some people thought getting the "gay plague," as it was called, was ideal fodder for crude jokes — and comics told those jokes. It was acceptable to tell those jokes. Those days are long gone — or at least they're gone everywhere except the hallways of NBCUniversal. The entertainment behemoth seems to have stumbled onto some kind of corporate malaprop brand. Their lead performers spout hurtful and erroneous insults about vulnerable groups but say they mean nothing by it.

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But they do mean something. Thomas Ford, a psychologist from Western Carolina University has studied the effects of disparaging humor on people's tendency to discriminate against vulnerable members of society. In an article in Psychology Today he reported that disparaging humor targeting vulnerable members of society "releases inhibitions" individuals might have and allows them to "feel it's OK to discriminate."

Of course, adolescent movies like "Ted 2" are intentionally provocative and politically incorrect. But when movie makers target people who are suffering and spread misconceptions about their illness, making the public education challenge that much harder, it's time for the adults to draw a line.

As the head of the nation's oldest and largest advocacy organization fighting sickle cell disease, I stand with Tiahna, our National Child Ambassador since 2013, and the millions of people around the world who will be hurt by the statements and misconceptions promulgated in "Ted 2." Seth MacFarlane and NBCUniversal owe Tiahna and all those suffering with the disease a public apology. But what would even be better would be an agreement to work with us to find a cure for sickle cell disease.

Sonja L. Banks is president and chief operating officer of the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America (www.sicklecelldisease.org), a Baltimore-based national nonprofit that serves over 55 sickle cell community based organizations across America; her email is sbanks@sicklecelldisease.org.

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