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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The Mexico City Rule and Maternal Death

By Clíodhna Ní Chéileachair

The ‘Mexico City Rule’ is a Reagan-era regulation which bars US funding to worldwide NGOs which provide counselling relating to abortion, or referrals for abortion services, or which advocate for the expansion of abortion access. The regulation is a sticking point for the two-party reality of US politics, and has been rescinded by every Democratic president since Reagan, and reinstated by each Republican president. Trump is no exception, and his administration’s approach to the policy has been exceedingly expansionist; where the policy traditionally only applied to aid tied to family planning projects, the policy now extends to all international health care aid provided by the US government, amounting to almost $9 billion every year, and covering US aid policies in the areas of family planning and reproductive health, infectious diseases, TB treatment, children’s health, nutrition, HIV/AIDS prevention, water and sanitation programs, and tropical diseases.

The effect of the policy extends past the years in which it is actively in place. Population Action International reports on a reluctance on the part of US governmental officials and non-governmental partners to enter into agreements with organizations that may be ineligible for funding in the future based on the putative reinstatement of the policy, in effect operationalizing the policy beyond the times in which it is in active effect. Beyond the expanded remit given to the policy by the Trump administration, and the temporal expansion based on likely reinstatement, the wording of the policy itself goes some way to expanding the scope of the policy beyond what might be necessary in a vacuum. The structural effect of the policy is to prevent the funding of abortion access with US aid money (an outcome which is illegal regardless through the Helms Amendment) and abortion advocacy. The policy contemplates a neat categorization of organizations such that it is possible to carve out the aspects of a healthcare organization that deal with abortion care as an aspect of reproductive health and justice. Read More

Book Launch: Law, Religion, and Health in the United States

Book Launch: Law, Religion, and Health in the United States
September 27, 2017 12:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West A (2019)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

In July 2017, Cambridge University Press will publish Law, Religion, and Health in the United States, co-edited by outgoing Petrie-Flom Center Executive Director Holly Fernandez Lynch, Faculty Director I. Glenn Cohen, and Elizabeth Sepper, Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law. This edited volume stems from the Center’s 2015 annual conference, which brought together leading experts to identify the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care in the United States, examine the role of law in creating or mediating conflict between religion and health care, and explore potential legal solutions to allow religion and health care to simultaneously flourish in a culturally diverse nation.

About the book: While the law can create conflict between religion and health, it can also facilitate religious accommodation and protection of conscience. Finding this balance is critical to addressing the most pressing questions at the intersection of law, religion, and health in the United States: should physicians be required to disclose their religious beliefs to patients? How should we think about institutional conscience in the health care setting? How should health care providers deal with families with religious objections to withdrawing treatment? In this timely book, experts from a variety of perspectives and disciplines offer insight on these and other pressing questions, describing what the public discourse gets right and wrong, how policymakers might respond, and what potential conflicts may arise in the future. It should be read by academics, policymakers, and anyone else – patient or physician, secular or devout – interested in how US law interacts with health care and religion.

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REGISTER NOW (1/23)! PFC’s 5th Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

The Fifth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2016 and what to watch out for in 2017. The discussion at this day-long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health policy under the new administration, regulatory issues in clinical research, law at the end-of-life, patient rights and advocacy, pharmaceutical policy, reproductive health, and public health law. Read More

LIVE ONLINE TODAY @ NOON: President-Elect Trump’s Health Policy Agenda: Priorities, Strategies, and Predictions

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Webinar: President-Elect Trump’s Health Policy Agenda: Priorities, Strategies, and Predictions

Monday, December 19, 2016, 12:00 – 1:00pm

WATCH LIVE ONLINE!: http://petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/events/details/president-elect-trumps-health-policy-agenda

Submit your questions to the panelists via Twitter @PetrieFlom.

Please join the Petrie-Flom Center for a live webinar to address what health care reform may look like under the new administration. Expert panelists will address the future of the Affordable Care Act under a “repeal and replace” strategy, alternative approaches to insurance coverage and access to care, the problem of high drug prices, innovation policy, support for scientific research, and other topics. The panel will discuss opportunities and obstacles relevant to President-elect Trump’s proposals, as well as hopes and concerns for health policy over the next four years. Webinar participants will have the opportunity to submit questions to the panelists for discussion.

Panelists

  • Joseph R. Antos, Wilson H. Taylor Scholar in Health Care and Retirement Policy, American Enterprise Institute
  • Lanhee J. Chen, David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; Director of Domestic Policy Studies and Lecturer, Public Policy Program; affiliate, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University
  • Douglas Holtz-Eakin, President, American Action Forum
  • Moderator:Gregory Curfman, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Health Publications

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Still Seeking Contraceptive Compromise After Zubik v. Burwell

[Crossposted from RegBlog]

By Allison Hoffman

Zubik v. Burwell was this year’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) appearance on the Supreme Court stage. Consolidated with six other cases, Zubik challenged the ACA requirement that group health plans and health insurance issuers must provide free coverage of preventative services, including all contraceptive methods approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Some religious groups believe that the use of some or all contraceptives is morally wrong. In response, the initial preventive services regulation exempted houses of worship, such as churches, from the requirement altogether. For religious nonprofit organizations, such as universities and hospitals, later regulations created an accommodation that enabled employees to receive coverage for contraceptives without the employer having to provide it.

Even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has tried to make it easy for nonprofit organizations to receive the accommodation, it still requires those organizations, unlike churches and other houses of worship, to ask for it affirmatively through a process of self-certification. Read More

Pay No Attention to Those Tens of Thousands of Women Affected by the Contraception Litigation

Photo: Hobby Lobby
Flickr/Creative Commons—m01229

By Gregory M. Lipper

In her latest column, Linda Greenhouse predicts that the Supreme Court’s order in Zubik v. Burwell will not produce the desired happy compromise between the government and the religious organizations who object to the government’s arranging for their students and staff to receive contraceptive coverage from third parties. Towards the end, Greenhouse also describes how the objectors have inaccurately insisted that these cases are about nuns and only nuns—ignoring the dozens of other plaintiffs whose students and staff number in the tens of thousands—and how legal commentators (some of whom should know better) have gone along:

[T]here is a widespread misunderstanding that the case is about nuns, specifically the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order whose mission is to run nursing homes for the elderly poor. Commentary following last week’s decision perpetuated this misunderstanding. “Surely the Obama administration could find a way to provide contraception to women without involving a group of Catholic nuns,” Ramesh Ponneru, a senior editor of National Review, wrote in a Bloomberg News post titled “The Culture War Obama Didn’t Have to Wage.” Richard W. Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote on Scotusblog that the Obama administration had “aggressively and unlawfully overreached” in its “strange insistence that a community of nuns who take vows of poverty and care for the elderly poor must serve as a vehicle for delivering free contraception to their employees.” In a Wall Street Journal column titled “Big Win for Little Sisters,” William McGurn wrote that “though it was more a TKO than a straight-up ruling, the Little Sisters prevailed at the Supreme Court Monday in their fight against the Obamacare contraceptive mandate.”

This single-minded focus on Little Sisters of the Poor—which itself employs hundreds of people of different religious faiths in multiple states—overlooked the tens of thousands of women who will lose contraceptive coverage if the objectors prevail:

By my count, the Little Sisters of the Poor (who, as I’ve noted before, advertise themselves as equal-opportunity employers in the nursing home enterprise) are only one of 30 petitioners in the seven Supreme Court cases. The other 29 include Catholic and Baptist colleges, Catholic high schools, individual bishops, two chapters of Catholic Charities, other charities, and several individuals.

If anything, there are more objectors and more affected women than even Greenhouse suggests.

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