Empty classroom.

Can Colleges and Universities Require Student COVID-19 Vaccination?

This post originally appeared on the Harvard Law Review Blog.

By I. Glenn Cohen and Dorit Rubinstein Reiss

In the last year, colleges and universities across the U.S. struggled with how to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent data, from January 2021, shows a mix of online and in-person modes of instruction.

Pie chart of modes of instruction for higher education institutions during the pandemic.

At the same time, a study of the experience in early fall 2020 found an association between colleges and universities with in-person instruction and increased infection incidence in the counties within which the schools were located. With vaccine authorization in the U.S. and the promise of potential availability for student populations in late spring and summer 2021 (in most states’ allocation plans these students are among the last groups in prioritization), there is increasing interest by higher education institutions in moving more of their fall 2021 educational instruction and non-instructional activities to in-person modes. Vaccinating students is a key step to safely reopening campuses, in whole or in part, in a way that is safe for students, faculty, staff, and local communities. At the same time, university leaders are likely reasonably concerned about the legality of mandating COVID-19 vaccines. Not all students, faculty or staff may appreciate such a requirement, and anti-vaccine groups are more than ready to assist in litigation — as, for example, they did when the University of California required influenza vaccines for on-campus attendance (a preliminary injunction in that case was denied). In this essay, we discuss whether universities can legally require vaccination as a condition of attendance and with what accommodations.

Read More

Eighth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review: Looking Back & Reaching Ahead

This post is part of our Eighth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium. You can read all of the posts in the series here. Review the conference’s full agenda and register for the event on the Petrie-Flom Center’s website.

By Prof. I. Glenn Cohen and Kaitlyn Dowling

The Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics is excited to host the Eighth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review to be held at Harvard Law School December 6, 2019. This one-day conference is free and open to the public and will convene leading experts across health law policy, health sciences, technology, and ethics to discuss major developments in the field over the past year and invites them to contemplate what 2020 may hold. This year’s event will focus on developments in health information technology, the challenge of increasing health care coverage, immigration, the 2020 election, gene editing, and drug pricing, among other topic areas.

As we come to the end of another year in health law, the event will give us both a post-mortem on the biggest trends in 2019 and also some predictions on what’s to come in 2020.

Among the topics we will discuss: Read More

Filing archives cabinet on a laptop screen

The Right Lesson from the Google-Ascension Patient Privacy Story

By I. Glenn Cohen

As has been well reported in the media, there is a controversy brewing over nonprofit hospital chain Ascension sharing millions of patient records with Google for their project codenamed “Nightingale.” (very Batman, if you ask me!) Most of the discussion so far, and the answers have not yet become pellucid, concerns whether the hospital and Google complied with HIPAA.


This is important, don’t get me wrong, but it is important that conversation not ignore a more important question: Read More

FDA scott gottlieb

How Scott Gottlieb is Wrong on the Gene Edited Baby Debacle

I am a huge fan of FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

He is by far my favorite Trump appointee — though the competition isn’t tough, to be honest— and he is doing great things at FDA on issues such as mobile health, software, and so on.

But in his comments on the news that gene edited embryos in China had led to live births, I think he has it wrong.

“The response from the scientific community has been far too slow and far too tepid, and the credibility of the community to self-police has already been damaged,” he said to Biocentury. “Governments will now have to react, and that reaction may have to take consideration of the fact that the scientific community failed to convincingly assert, in this case, that certain conduct must simply be judged as over the line.” Read More

Investigating Conflicts of Interest in Patient-Centered Outcomes Research

By I. Glenn Cohen

The Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) was established under the Affordable Care Act. Its goal is to fund and encourage Patient-Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR), understood as evaluating questions and outcomes that are meaningful not just to researchers, but to patients and caregivers as well.

One key way of achieving this is to involve patients as personnel in research projects as advisors, consultants, or team members involved in any aspect of research, from topic development through study design, implementation, interpretation, and dissemination.

But where do these patients come from? How representative are they of the patients who will ultimately participate in the study?

Read More

Colorado Supreme Court Hears Important Case Re Constitutional Issues on Dispute About Frozen Preembyros – My Take on Oral Argument

By I. Glenn Cohen

On Tuesday, January 9th, the Colorado Supreme Court heard oral argument in In Re Marriage of Rooks. (Kudos to them for live streaming and archiving!)

This is the latest of a series of cases involving disputes between ex husbands and ex wives (or in some cases unmarried former partners) regarding the disposition of cryopreserved pre-embryos. These cases, that have been percolating in a large number of states for what has now been 25 years (!) and have come out in a myriad of ways on a myriad of theories as Eli Adashi and I recently detailed in the Hastings Center Report.

One thing many of these cases have in common, though, is that the Courts have avoided reaching the fundamental federal Constitutional question I wrote about now 10 years ago in the Stanford Law Review: Does the party opposing the implantation of embryos upon dissolution of the marriage have a right not to procreate recognized by the federal Constitution? I have argued that we need to realize we are talking about possible rights (plural) not to procreate and in particular separate out:

The right to be a gestational parent The right not to be a gestational parent
The right to be a genetic parent The right not to be a genetic parent
The right to be legal parent The right not to be a legal parent.

This case demonstrates well why such a distinction is important.

Read More

Two Views About the Gene Editing ‘Breakthrough’ that Are Not Getting Enough Attention (IMHO)

As has now been well-covered in the news, Nature just published a paper from Mitalipov’s lab at the Oregon Health and Science University that used CRISPR/Cas 9 gene editing to correct the MYBPC3 mutation associated with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a heart muscle disease that affects 1 in 500 people. The more impressive element of the story is that by doing the alteration simultaneous with the sperm fertilizing the egg (not after fertilization) they were able to avoid the mosaicism that problematized early attempts in China — in mosaicism not all cells are repaired due to failure in the editing. The media coverage thus far, sadly but predictably, has focused on the soundbite of “designer babies” and “hope and hype” (indeed as my friend Hank Greely has suggested perhaps “overhype”.) These are worthy narratives to tell, to be sure, but here are two other narratives that I think are not getting the air time they deserve:

(1) The Importance of Genetic Ties: This use of CRISPR/Cas 9, as with most reproductive technologies, are attempts to allow those with disease-causing genes or other obstacles to reproduce genetically to do so. Investment and development of these technologies reifies the importance of genetic ties, as opposed to the kinds of ties associated with adoption, step-parenting, etc. It confuses a right to be a genetic parent, with a right to be a parent. We might have one right or both, but we should be clear they are different rights claims. Françoise Baylis has written eloquently about this issue in the context of In Vitro Gemetogenesis, and others (myself included) have mused on what claims the infertile have on society to have the state pay for these kinds of technologies instead of adopting. The National Academies report on gene editing suggested that clinical use of gene editing to eliminate disease be restricted to cases where there is an “absence of reasonable alternatives,” but does not take a position on when adoption is a reasonable alternative. Of course, in the U.S. at least, adoption is not easy and not available for everyone and there are a ton of interesting normative questions I have gestured at (including whether it matters for “reasonability” whether the child is of a certain age, race, or lacks developmental delay).

(2) The Importance of Embryo Sparing: A different alternative to gene editing in some cases is to fertilize large numbers of embryos and engage in preimplantation genetic diagnosis to eliminate those embryos that carry the disease-causing genes. There is a lot of obstacles to doing this: the fact that women may not retrieve enough eggs to do this, the cost (physical and financial) of repeated egg retrievals and PGD, the fact that this may not work for all genetic problems, etc. But one problem that vexes some is that this results in the destruction of large numbers of embryos (“discard” is sometimes used as the euphemism). Gene editing may be a solve for this problem. The Mitalipov group in their Nature paper have a line to this effect, “When only one parent carries a heterozygous mutation, 50% of the embryos should be mutation-free and available for transfer, while the remaining carrier embryos are discarded. Gene correction would rescue mutant embryos, increase the number of embryos available for transfer and ultimately improve pregnancy rate” (emphasis mine). This raises to me a very interesting question: some religious conservatives have tended to oppose both attempts to transform the human genome & embryo destruction (especially in the stem cell debate context). Could gene editing offer an olive branch to them as an alternative to the “greater evil” of routine PGD plus discard? Does it matter that to get to a place where we could achieve this we would have to actually destroy numerous embryos to perfect the research? (The Mitalipov embryos were not implanted, it seems under current U.S.  law that they could not be/) Is the right way to think about this consequentialist — destroy some embryos today to develop embryo sparing technologies to save many more tomorrow — or is this a case of complicity where the wrongfulness of the basic research taints what comes later?

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.

Westworld and Bioethics

By I. Glenn Cohen

[WARNING: Spoilers below]

On Sunday, HBO’s Westworld finished its run. Though I thought some of the early episodes were arguably a bit of a failure as television (and my partner almost jumped off the bandwagon of making this one of “our shows”) IMHO the show finished very strong.

But whatever you thought of it as television, the show is wildly successful at raising a series of bioethics issues. There have been a bunch of other very good treatments of some of these issues in the last couple of decades – A.I., Ex Machina, Humans, Battlestar Galactica all come to mind – that touch on some of these issues. But, what I loved about Westworld is its lack of direct moralizing on these subjects, and how it leaves the viewer puzzling through them in a much more naturalistic way: I have been thrust in this unfamiliar world, and now I am trying to use my ethical compass to get my bearings.

Once upon a time I discussed Bioethics and the Martian, and my aim is to do the same here. I thought one way to share why I think the show is so successful as a text for bioethics exploration was to develop a “mock exam question” on the subject. This is really written more like an oral exam, with follow-up questions. The goal is not entirely fanciful since I do teach a course that uses films as texts to explore bioethics and the law.

Here goes: Read More

Initial Quick Thoughts on the Announcement of the Birth Through Mitochondrial Replacement in Mexico

The science media is abuzz about the birth of a child using mitochondrial replacement techniques in Mexico to Jordanian parents at the hands of NY Doctors. A few quick reactions (I am heading to this unrelated NAS/IOM Committee meeting tomorrow evening so may have some more thoughts when that settles down).

  • This is the first time this particular technique has been used to produce a live, but I am not sure from an ethical standpoint the arguments are all that different. That said, for those deeply interested in the more philosophical question of harm to children and the propriety of best interests argument in light of Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem (my take here and here) it may matter whether mitochondrial replacement is done through Pronuclear Transfer or Maternal Spindle Transfer as argued quite well here.
  • The fact that the doctors are from New York, the Patients are from Jordan, and the procedure took place in Mexico is not insignificant. This is a form of medical tourism, a topic I wrote a book on, most similar to cases of fertility and stem cell therapy tourism I cover in the latter half of the book. Absent making domestic prohibitions extraterritorial, something that I argue is permitted by international law and justified in some instances, there is very little that a home country can do about this. The going abroad is likely in part at least a function of some U.S. laws on the subject Eli Adashi and I wrote about for JAMA prohibiting FDA from considering approval of the technology.
  • As I wrote on this blog in February in relation to the IOM report “whatever the US policy in a world where medical tourism is possible and other countries adopt their own systems, so long as not everyone adopts the approach of the US some of these problems will manifest no matter what. So this is about harm reduction not harm avoidance.” This was a bit quicker than even I thought, but is not surprising. More generally if your concern about MRT is harm to offspring and transmission to future generations, people born elsewhere through the technology will inevitably enter the United States and/or marry, and procreate with U.S. citizens who themselves become U.S. citizens. To sound a bit X-Files about it “THEY WILL BE AMONG US!” This is a great example of the limits of unilateral regulation in a world of globalized health care.
  • Interesting that it was a male birth. This may be coincidence or in keeping with the IOM recommendation that only male embryos be transferred (to get rid of germ line transmission). Eli Adashi and I raised some ethical questions in Nature about whether that was an ethically problematic form of sex selection or not but in the reporting I have seen so far it has not been clear that they used only male embryos on purpose.
  • I wish we could stop calling it in the media “Three Parent IVF” or “Three Parent Reproduction.” That assumes the answer to what I think of as a subtle and interesting set of questions — is the mitochondrial donor a “parent” and what sense of the word do we mean.

More soon, I hope!