protest sign at supreme court

Misinformed Consent: How the Supreme Court Bolsters Paternalistic Medicine

The Supreme Court this week struck down California’s Reproductive FACT Act in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, which required Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPC) to inform their prospects that they are not medical providers and post a sign informing them that the state provides free or low cost access to prenatal and preventative medicine, including abortion.

The law was passed in reaction to what California saw as deceptive and harmful tactics employed by the CPCs in order to mislead women seeking abortions to come to them instead. These clinics are often funded by the state and federal government. While many of these centers offer some medical services, importantly, they are not healthcare providers and usually do not have a doctor on the premises. This means that not only are the women who go to them at risk of receiving faulty care, the CPCs do not face the same consequences a doctor would for misleading their patients.

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The Abortion Referendum in Ireland: What Happened and What’s Next?

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

As ballots were counted in Ireland’s historic vote to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion last Saturday, an informal tally took place alongside the official count, documenting the number of miraculous medals and crucifixes found in ballot boxes, no doubt surreptitiously slipped in with a ballot by zealous voters. Ireland is a perplexing place, politically speaking. It typically holds itself out as a modern, liberal country, with an open economy, highly-educated population, and forward-thinking attitude, boasting the world’s first-ever adoption of legal same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015. It was also, until Saturday, home to one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.

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Should courts treat destroyed embryos as “lost property” or “wrongful death”?

Bill of Health contributors Glenn Cohen and Dov Fox were featured in this week’s news coverage of novel claims related to recent freezer malfunctions at two major fertility clinics. A class-action suit by one Ohio couple who lost their embryos asks the court to afford embryos standing to use and declare that life begins at conception.Friday’s article asks: “Will Fertility Clinic Disaster Redefine Personhood?” From the piece:

Roe v. Wade made it clear that an embryo or fetus is not a person under the protections of constitutional and federal law. Since then, no [Supreme Court] ju[stices] have suggested otherwise, Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, told The Daily Beast. That doesn’t mean that wrongful death claims cannot be filed on behalf of a fetus [or that] the fetus has legal standing as a person overall, but wrongful death can be brought on its behalf—”for lack of a better legal fiction,” Fox said.

Fox added that in similar cases dealing with the loss of embryos due to hospital or clinic in the past, the courts decide that an embryo is not a person for the purposes of wrongful death cases. He pointed to two cases where embryos were damaged—one in Arizona in 2005, and one in Illinois in 2008. Both held that the wrongful death statutes do not apply to the loss of an embryo that hasn’t yet been implanted in a womb. Therefore, it would be surprising if the Ohio court ruled differently. “It would fly in the face of all existing legal precedent,” Fox said. Read More

The Abortion Information Wars

by Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

The Supreme Court is currently considering National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, a challenge by abortion opponents to a California law that requires unlicensed centers in the state to inform potential patients about whether the center is medically licensed or not, and that requires clinics offering pregnancy-based care to give accurate information about the availability of low cost, or free government contraceptive and abortion care. The law is an attempt to target clinics which purport to offer comprehensive pre-natal care and pregnancy counselling, while in actuality pursuing an agenda that typically discourages women from availing of abortion care through biased counselling, false descriptions of the risks of abortions and descriptions of foetal development that are inaccurate. The number of these clinics nationwide is estimated at 4,000 – far outstripping the number of actual abortion clinics in the US – and are frequently taxpayer funded. NIFLA claims that the law targets the organisation’s free speech rights and unfairly targets the political beliefs of clinic owners and operators.

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Mass embryo destruction, reproductive never events, and the not-quite-Wild West

By Dov Fox

Information found in this new post by Dov Fox is also available in Slate’s March 19th article In Vitro Injuries: How should courts compensate would-be parents when assisted reproductive technology goes terribly wrong?

More than 1 in 10 Americans seek fertility treatment. IVF and similar technologies result in 64,000 babies—1.6% annually—of all those born in the U.S. each year. For people willing to move heaven and earth to form a family, this is the medicine of miracles. But reproductive mishaps turn these dreams into nightmares. Some result in unplanned pregnancies. Others, lost chances for parenthood. I’ve considered the legal complexities elsewhere at law review length. (A reply to critics Robert Rabin, Carol Sanger, and Gregory Keating is out shortly with Columbia.) But it’s the facts that have made headlines of late.

The Today Show and Nightly News interviewed me in the wake of recent storage tank malfunctions at two major fertility clinics—one in San Francisco, the other outside Cleveland—that destroyed more than 4,000 cryopreserved eggs and embryos. The Cleveland facility said that “alerts that should have been sent to staff were never sent.” These incidents have left over a thousand affected couples mourning future children who would never be; practitioners wondering how something like this could have happened; and prospective parents around the country worrying that tragedy could strike again.

It’s not the first time. NBC News uncovered a history of freezer malfunctions. Over a decade ago in Florida over 60 cancer survivors lost their stored sperm “when a tank made by the same manufacturer failed.” Exact figures for such breakdowns are hard to come by, however. Elsewhere in health care delivery, most states mandate reporting of “never events,” such as surgery on the wrong body part or patient. But the United State has no public or private system for tracking what I’ve referred to as “reproductive” never events, let alone less serious errors. So it’s impossible to know with any reliability or precision the incidence of professional mistakes in matters of procreation.

Available data points are bracing. A 2008 survey of nearly half of all U.S. fertility clinics found that more than one in five misdiagnosed, mislabeled, or mishandled reproductive materials. A 2014 study revealed that popular methods of prenatal screening for fetal abnormality sound “a false alarm half of the time.” And in 2016, a national ratings website found that 18-24% of fertility patients reported damaged or destroyed samples among a host of other errors.

None among regulators, agencies, insurers, medical boards, or professional societies require safeguards that might prevent mistakes like these from happening in the first place. The U.S. stands out among developed countries for its failure to rein in wrongdoing that forces parenthood on people who don’t want it or that denies it to those who do. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, a national agency requires that all facilities comply with a standard of professional conduct that covers “all details of the clinical and embryological practice associated with assisted reproductive technology.”

That agency—the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—maintains rigorous laboratory inspections, often without notice. And even under its careful oversight, the agency reports that 1 out of every 100 fertility procedures—over 500 each year—involve reproductive materials that’s lost, damaged or destroyed. It stands to reason that these errors are at least as common in the United States, where fertility clinics, sperm banks, and surrogacy agencies aren’t monitored or supervised in any meaningful way. My own research uncovered hundreds of American cases in which procreation was negligently imposed, deprived, or confounded.

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New Study Finds That TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) Laws Are More Pervasive and Stringent Than Laws Regulating Other Office Interventions – Datasets and Mapping Tool Now Available on LawAtlas

Researchers from The University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) and Temple University’s Policy Surveillance Program of the Center for Public Health Law Research (CPHLR) published a study yesterday in the American Journal of Public Health, comparing laws governing facilities that provide abortions with laws governing facilities that provide other office interventions (e.g., office-based surgeries and procedures). The study found that laws targeting abortion provision are more numerous, expansive, and burdensome than laws regulating facilities providing other medical interventions.

The study was based on empirical datasets analyzing Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) Laws and Office-Based Surgery (OBS) Laws, all now available on LawAtlas.org, the Policy Surveillance Program’s website dedicated to empirical legal datasets. The study of TRAP laws is comprised of three individual datasets: Abortion Facility Licensing (AFL) Requirements, Ambulatory Surgical Center (ASC) Requirements, and Hospitalization Requirements (HR). Detailed descriptions of the TRAP datasets are below.

These three datasets complement a dataset analyzing Office-Based Surgery (OBS) Laws. This fourth dataset was included to study facility requirements imposed on abortion providers in comparison to other medical facilities.

Institutional Conscience, Individual Conscience

The debate over compulsory coverage for contraception rages on, with Notre Dame changing their policy on coverage for birth control again under Trump executive order allowing them to do so. The university had initially claimed that a requirement mandating them to provide contraceptive coverage was a burden on its exercise of religion, and discontinued coverage last October, before quickly reversing course after a protracted outcry from students, faculty and staff. Over 17,000 people are currently covered by the institution’s insurance plan. The university’s current position is to cut coverage for birth control that the university considers to be inconsistent with Catholic teachings; continuing coverage for ‘simple contraception’ while discontinuing coverage for contraception that ‘kills a fertilized egg’.  

The Affordable Care Act required that insurers cover the cost of contraception without any out-of-pocket costs by the claimant, with exemptions for houses of worships and closely-held for-profits, with the proviso that organisations that wished to avail of the exemption must notify the federal government, who would then contract directly with the insurer to provide unimpeded access to birth control for employees and their dependents. Under Trump administration rules, the exemption has been expanded to include non-profit organizations and for-profit companies, including public corporations, and a separate HHS rule allows similar moral objections for most institutions.

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Why Are So Many American Women Dying in Childbirth?

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

In November Serena Williams, indisputably one of the greatest – if not the greatest – tennis player in history gave birth to her daughter by emergency Caesarean section. After the surgery, Williams reported to an attending nurse that she was experiencing shortness of breath and immediately assumed she was experiencing pulmonary embolism. The star athlete has a history of blood clots and had discontinued blood thinners before the surgical delivery. Contrary to William’s requests for a CT scan and blood thinners, medical staff assumed that pain medication had made her confused. A later CT scan confirmed Williams’ self-diagnosis. Stripping out the fact of Williams’ identity turns this near-miss into a terrifyingly common story in US maternal care, albeit one with a happier ending than many. The global trend in maternal death rates – the rate of women dying in childbirth and post-childbirth – has rapidly decreased over the past 15 years. At the same time, the US, despite recording one of the highest per capita income levels in the world, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the developed world.

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Medical Abortions and the Internet

by Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

Early last summer, Facebook removed Women on Web’s page for ‘promoting drug use’. The Amsterdam-based organization connects women with doctors who prescribe the pills necessary for medical abortions and provides information on taking abortion pills, on contraception and on accessing abortion services in states where access to safe abortions is restricted or illegal. This followed an earlier interaction in which Facebook removed a photo of the organization’s founder, Rebecca Romperts, superimposed with instructions on the use of the pills. Facebook later apologized and reinstated the Facebook page, claiming that the removal was an error, and that the page served Facebook’s function of allowing individuals to organize and campaign for the issues that matter most to them.

Leaving aside the question of whether it was indeed an error, WoW have never existed without controversy. In February of last year, their sister organization Women on Waves made headlines when their boat was detained by the Guatemalan authorities while campaigning in Guatemalan waters. Women on Waves provides medical abortions to women once they are in international waters and thus operating under Dutch law, which allows abortions up to 21 weeks. Both organizations will provide access to abortion services up to 9 weeks, using a combination of medicines – misoprostol and mifepristone – which together induce abortion. The WHO estimates that the drug combination is used by 26 million women globally per year and is recommended as an abortifacient up to 9 weeks of pregnancy. Women on Waves are one of many organizations that aim to allow women to access abortion services that are either explicitly illegal, or practically unavailable in their home countries. There are risks associated with taking the drug combination, but these are minimal, and far riskier is the danger of leaving women with access to illegal abortions which is often the reality of full abortion bans. In Guatemala, 65,000 women have illegal abortions every year, with a third of that number admitted to hospitals from complications associated with the backstreet procedure. A medical abortion before 10 weeks is safer than childbirth, and as safe as a natural miscarriage. Both drugs have been on the WHO’s list of essential medicines since 2005. Studies show a high level of effectiveness in self-sourced and administered abortion pills, such as the service offered by Women On Web, and outcomes generally compare favorably with in-clinic administration. Underscoring the importance of safe access to the drug combination, use of the pills is often studied as a self-administration method alongside getting punched in the stomach, taking herbs or homeopathic medicines, deliberately taking a high dose of hormonal pills, alcohol and illegal drugs.

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Morality, Maturity, and Abortion Access in the US

by Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

In the complex web of restrictions on abortion access, parental consent laws and judicial bypass mechanisms play a small, but hugely significant part. States are entitled to enact parental consent and notification laws in relation to abortion care for minors, as long as they allow minors to ‘bypass’ this requirement judicially, an attempt to account for the myriad circumstances in which it will be impossible, difficult or dangerous for teens to tell their parents about their pregnancy and their wish to end it. Finding different justifications in different contexts, some laws appeal to the perceived immaturity of the individual in arriving at a decision without adult intervention; other legal schemes emphasize the critical importance of respecting the family unit, and by extension, the ability of parents to determine the medical treatment their child will receive. The exact stats, state by state, are available here.

The patchwork regime which governs the US rules on abortion access, administered by local courts presiding over the individual applications of pregnant teenagers, is a highly dysfunctional one, where standards of judgment can be entirely capricious. Judges are, after all, not medical professionals, nor are they therapists, health experts or developmental psychologists. The standard criteria pronounced upon by a judge at a bypass hearing is whether the minor is ‘mature enough, and well enough informed to make her abortion decision, in consultation with her physician, independent of her parents knowledge’ or that ‘even if she is not able to make this decision independently, the desired abortion would be in her best interests’. The gateway for unchecked judicial discretion is gaping. Markers of maturity are wholly subjective determinations, as are the metrics to determine whether a minor is sufficiently informed, or where her best interests lie. After all, for a staunchly anti-abortion judge, it is entirely possible that no-one could be informed about the process of abortion and yet rationally seek it, or that it could never be in an individual’s best interests to receive abortion care as a minor. The controlling law doesn’t foreclose on these possibilities.

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