John A. Robertson (1943 – 2017)

Renowned bioethics scholar, longtime University of Texas Law Professor, and frequent Bill of Health contributor John A. Robertson has recently passed away. We at the Petrie-Flom Center mourn his passing, and our Faculty Director I. Glenn Cohen writes a few words:

I saw John roughly a month ago at the Baby Markets Roundtable at UT Austin. He was, as he always was and as he still seems to me in my mind’s eye, full of electric intellectual energy, warmth, and whimsy. Every comment that I heard him make for over a decade at conferences began: “That’s so interesting…” and then he would proceed to subtly add something to whomever he responded to that was at once flattering of the idea and also five times better than what was said by original speaker. Certainly that’s how it felt when I was the person to whom he was responding.

Much will be said in coming weeks about his work—not only the centrality of Children of Choice to almost everything that has been written since on reproductive technology, but also the breadth of his work and the way in which almost every new technology soon had a wonderful take by him in print (IVF and uterus transplants most recently).

I’ll limit myself to two reflections. First, the way in which he put the field I write in (law and bioethics or law and the biosciences, depending on who you ask) on to the law school map, and with a few others (Rebecca Dresser, Alta CharoHank Greely, etc), gave it legitimacy as a real and important area of focus within law schools.

Second, and more personally, John was just about the best mentor to young scholars I have ever encountered. I met him first while I was a fellow at an ASLME event and I was blown away by the warmth and generosity of someone I considered a giant in the field (my idol if I’m honest) to a little pischer like me. Over the years I saw him do the same for countless others and I tried to do my best to palely imitate.

I can’t believe he is gone. The world seems a little darker.

Most-Cited Health Law Scholars (with an update on multiple authors)

By Mark A. Hall and I. Glenn Cohen

Based on the law faculty citation analysis done by Greg Sisk, Brian Leiter has compiled “most-cited” rankings of tenured law faculty in a number of different subject areas, but not health law.  Naturally, we would be curious to know how we and colleagues might show up in such a ranking, but more than this, we were curious how the field of Health Law as a whole would look, compared to other fields, and how well different component of health law might be reflected.  Health law (as many people conceive it) is a broad field that includes bioethics, biotechnology, medical malpractice, health care finance and regulation, health policy, and public health.

Using Leiter’s methods and the Sisk data (supplemented as noted below), we compiled a citation-count ranking of health law scholars over the five-year period 2010-2014 (which is the latest currently available from Sisk).  We classify faculty as health law scholars if publications in this field account for the bulk (roughly 2/3) of their more recent citations.  A research librarian at Wake Forest University supplemented the Sisk data by doing citation counts (using his same methods) for an additional two dozen prominent health law scholars who are not on the Sisk list because they are at lower-ranked schools (below the top 70) or are based at schools of medicine or public health.  To ensure maximum comparability between these rankings and those already existing for other legal fields we conformed to Leiter’s presentation, which entailed, among other things, rounding citations to the nearest ten and estimating the age of those ranked.  Read More

Whole Woman’s Health and the Future of Abortion Regulation

By John A. Robertson

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (WWH) is the most important abortion case since Casey in 1992, and a major setback for the anti-choice movement.  By allowing courts to weigh the importance of the health benefits of a regulation, it will most likely invalidate most TRAP laws, which usually only marginally advance health while making it more difficult for women to access abortion.  WWH, however, will not stop the anti-choice movement from pressing its fight against abortion in other ways.  It now controls many state legislatures, and more legislation in areas left open by WWH may be expected.

Future health-related regulation will have to hew to the WWH line of providing real benefit, at least if substantially limits access to abortion.  But close questions may still arise.  What if a state has a valid health justification for a regulation that does limit access to abortion, as Jonathan Will notes would occur if a state law that directly promotes women’s health leads to that one clinic closing, as might occur in a state like Mississippi?  Here there would be a substantial burden on access, but given the health benefit of the law, which interest should take priority?  Neither Casey nor WWH are clear on this point.  In my view the question will turn on how great is the health benefit from the requirement.  A state, for example, should be able to close the only clinic in the state if it was as derelict as the Gosnell clinic.  In that case, however, one could show serious danger to women’s health and life that would be comparable or even greater than the risk of childbirth.  If the health benefit is less but still substantial, the question is harder.  Such a situation would call into question whether the state itself must allow even a sub-standard abortion facility even when acceptable facilities exist across a state line. (See Jackson Women’s Health v. Currier.) Read More

The Reproductive Rights Case the Supreme Court Decided *Not* to Decide

By Dov Fox

The landmark abortion decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt eclipsed quieter reproductive rights news out of the Supreme Court at the end of its term. It involves a couple’s claim that the Tennessee Supreme Court violated their equal protection rights by refusing to recognize “disruption of family planning as either an independent cause of action or element of damages.” You won’t have heard about this case. It wasn’t a merits judgment, but a decision not to decide. The Court’s denial of certiorari in Rye v. Women’s Care Center of Memphis has gone all but unremarked. It shouldn’t. This post lays out the arguments and why the Court (most likely) declined to hear it on appeal (without explaining its decision, as standard for cert denials). My updated article out in next year’s Columbia Law Review elaborates on the significance of professional wrongdoing that imposes, deprives, and confounds procreation in the face of people’s best efforts to plan a family.

The dispute arose during Michelle Rye’s third pregnancy. Rye has Rh negative blood, meaning that she produces antibodies that attack the blood cells of a Rh-positive fetus, potentially leading to serious harm in a born child. Doctors nowadays easily prevent this Rh-sensitization by injecting the pregnant woman with a compound called RhoGAM. But Rye’s doctor didn’t give her that injection. Now the couple couldn’t have more children of their own without risking serious health problems. Their Catholic faith took fetal testing and abortion off the table. They couldn’t even use birth control to prevent a risky pregnancy. Rye and her husband sued the doctor (who admitted negligence) for disrupting their family plans. Tennessee courts, all the way up to the state’s Supreme Court, rejected their claim. The courts held that the couple had not suffered the kind of injury that would support a legal cause of action. The Ryes’ petition to the U.S Supreme Court argued that the state Court’s refusal to recognize their claim denied them equal protection under the law. Read More

Surrogacy Contracts, Abortion Conditions, and Parenting Licenses

By Dov Fox

Everything went fine the last time for Melissa Cook, when the 48-year old mother of four carried a child for a family back in 2013 to supplement her office job salary. This time was different. First were the triplets. She had been impregnated with three embryos, created using eggs from a 20-something donor and sperm from the intended father who paid for everything. Then, it was that the man, Chester Moore, turned out to be a deaf 50-year-old postal worker who lived with his parents. Finally, was that Moore asked Cook to abort one of the fetuses. He said that he had run out of money to support a third child and worried the high-risk multiple pregnancy would endanger the health of any resulting children.

Cook, who is pro-life, refused. A battle over parental rights of the triplets, all boys, began even before they were born (prematurely, at 28 weeks). Moore argued that his surrogacy contract with Cook, explicitly enforceable under California law, made clear that he was the sole legal parent. Cook sued for custody, notwithstanding her prior agreement that any children resulting from the pregnancy would be his to raise. She argued that the statute, by authorizing private contracts for gestation of a human being, reduces children to “commodities” for sale, and a surrogate like her to a “breeding animal or incubator.” Read More

Uterus Transplants: Challenges and Potential

[Cross posted at the OUPBlog]

By John A. Robertson

The birth of a healthy child in Sweden in October, 2014 after a uterus transplant from a living donor marked the advent of a new technique to help women with absent or non-functional uteruses to bear genetic offspring. The Cleveland Clinic has now led American doctors into this space, performing the first US uterine transplant in February, 2016 as part of an Institutional Review Board (IRB)-approved series of ten transplants using cadaveric donors. Dallas and Boston medical centers have also been approved for this program, as will other programs as progress continues. An estimate of 50,000 American women are potential clients.

The path to womb transplants, however, will not be easy. On 7 March, the Cleveland Clinic celebrated its transplant with a media announcement full of joy and celebration. Two days later in a decidedly different key, the Clinic informed the world that the organ was surgically removed because the recipient had “suddenly developed a serious complication.” One can only imagine the disappointment of the patient and medical team, who had smiled so happily in media coverage. Of course, early failure is not surprising with innovative surgery, and no doubt the Cleveland clinic will proceed with other patients. The case is a reminder that the road to success is long, and initial steps should be closely monitored by IRBs, as is occurring in Cleveland, Sweden, and elsewhere. Read More

Fetal Personhood and the Constitution

By John A. Robertson

The Rubio-Huckabee claim that actual and legal personhood start at conception has drawn trenchant responses from Art Caplan on the medical uncertainty of such a claim and David Orentlicher, drawing on Judith Thomson’s famous article, that even if a fetus is a person, woman would not necessarily have a duty to keep it in her body.

Their debate claim that the fetus is already a legal person under the constitution also deserves a response, for it has no basis in positive law.  In Roe v. Wade all nine justices agreed that the use of “person” in the Constitution always assumed a born person, and therefore that the 14th Amendment’s mention of person did not confer constitutional rights until after a live birth.  In the years since Roe, when the make-up of the court has changed, no justice has ever disagreed with that conclusion, including those who would overturn Roe and Casey. Read More

The Undue Burden Test in Texas Abortion Clinic Regulation

By John A. Robertson

[also published on Balkinization]

The Fifth Circuit decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole upholding Texas’ law requiring all abortions, including medication abortions, to be performed in a licensed ambulatory surgical center (ASC) by doctors with admitting privileges at nearby hospitals seems outrageous on several counts.  It defies a medical consensus that abortions performed in physician’s offices or licensed outpatient clinics are exceptionally safe.  With the risk of death less than 1% nationally and even lower in Texas, first trimester and many early second trimester abortions simply do not need the extensive sterility precautions and other operating room requirements needed for more invasive procedures. Indeed, colonoscopies, which have a higher morbidity and mortality rate, are permitted in non-ASC settings.

Nor does the admitting privilege requirement appreciably add to safety.  With hospitalists currently taking over care of most patients admitted to hospitals, the same doctor often does not provide both outpatient and hospital-based care, and emergency room doctors are trained to respond to any emergency.  Nor are admitting privileges necessarily an indication of a doctor’s clinical competence.  They are denied or awarded on many grounds unrelated to competency, i.e., likely frequency of future admissions, and thus do not usually impact the quality of outpatient care. Read More

Limiting D&E Abortions:  The Kansas Maneuver

By John A. Robertson

Anti-abortion groups have found another way to limit previously legal abortions.  Building on the analysis in Gonzales v. Carhart, the 2007 case upholding the federal partial birth abortion law, Kansas has now prohibited “dismemberment” of fetuses.  This law would ban dilatation and evacuation (D&E) of the uterus by banning piecemeal removal of fetal parts, which is the standard way of performing second trimester abortions.  Several other states have similar legislation in the pipeline.

While 90% of abortions occur in the first trimester when suction aspiration or medication abortions are available, most later abortions occur by D&E, which involves several passes into the uterus with forceps or other instruments to remove the fetus.  The fetus is ripped apart and removed piecemeal.  The Kansas law would require that the fetus first be killed in utero by a KCL injection, and then removed piecemeal.  Alternatively, labor could be induced so that a very early nonviable fetus is delivered whole and dead.  If it is breathing, it is then not resuscitated because it is too immature to survive. Read More

Is Nonmedical Sex Selection Always Sexist?

By John A. Robertson

Nonmedical sex selection is a thorny topic. Usually used to favor males, it has harmed women and resulted in sex ratio disparities in India, China, and other nations where son preference is strong. Sex selection is also troubling because it relies on infanticide, abortion, or the discarding of embryos based on their sex.

Since sex ratio imbalances are not a danger in the United States and equal rights and opportunities for women, though imperfect, are increasingly well-established, nonmedical sex selection in some circumstances, e.g., for gender variety in a family, may be more acceptable. That position, however, runs into the claim that any deliberate choice or preference about the sex/gender of offspring, even for a girl, is inherently sexist or gendered (see Glenn Cohen’s recent post). That position, however, is controversial.[1]

Read More