Whole Women’s Health, First Take: On the Major Victories and On Technocratic vs. Kulturkampf Approaches to Abortion Litigation at the Supreme Court

I have just made my way through all 107 pages of Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt,  the Supreme Court’s decision this morning to invalidate Texas’ H.B. 2 admitting privileges and surgical center regulations as undue burdens on the abortion right. Full disclosure I filed an amicus brief arguing for this result.  The case was 5-3 with Justices Thomas, Alito, and Chief Justice Roberts in dissent.  I am sure I’ll have a lot more to say after I’ve read through the opinion 3 or 4 more times. Here’s what’s clear to me though even on a quick read.

First, this is a major victory for opponents of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws. Armed with this opinion they will have a much easier time in the lower courts challenging such laws. Among other things,  (1) the Court signals much less deference to legislatures than in Gonzales and prior cases (see p. 21 of Opinion); (2) the Court instructs that “The rule announced in Casey, however, requires that courts consider the burdens a law imposes on abortion access together with the benefits” conferred (p. 19) ; (3) the Court clarifies the “large fraction” language from Casey as to what is an undue burden in a way favorable to opponents of these regulations. Let me quote the majority here:

Casey used the language “large fraction” to refer to “a large fraction of cases in which [the provision at issue] is relevant,” a class narrower than “all women,” “pregnant women,” or even “the class of women seeking abortions identified by the State.” 505 U. S., at 894–895 (opinion of the Court) (emphasis added). Here, as in Casey, the rele- vant denominator is “those [women] for whom [the provi- sion] is an actual rather than an irrelevant restriction.” Id., at 895. (p.39)

Contrast that with Justice Alito’s long discussion in his dissent as to his understanding (with the pizzaz that shows why he is such a good writer) in a footnote:

The Court, by contrast, applies the “large fraction” standard without even acknowledging the open question. Ante, at 39. In a similar vein, it holds that the fraction’s “relevant denominator is ‘those [women] for whom [the provision] is an actual rather than an irrelevant re­ striction.’ ” Ibid. (quoting Casey, 505 U. S., at 895). I must confess that I do not understand this holding. The purpose of the large-fraction analysis, presumably, is to compare the number of women actually burdened with the number potentially burdened. Under the Court’s holding, we are supposed to use the same figure (women actually burdened) as both the numerator and the denominator. By my math, that fraction is always “1,” which is pretty large as fractions go.

Second, it is remarkable how differently these sets of opinions read from, let’s say, the gay marriage cases or even Gonzales v. Carhart. All the opinions, except perhaps Justice Ginsburg’s very short concurrence, are decidedly in the “technocratic” mode of writing as opposed to what we might call the “kulturkampf” mode that characterized much of Justice Scalia’s dissents on these kinds of issues. These opinion are written for lawyers not the public. I would have to do a proper count to be sure but it seems to me that something like 2/3 to 3/4 of the total pages of these set of opinions are devoted to issues that only lawyers will be able to engage in — res judicata/claim preclusion, severability, third-party standing, as-applied versus facial challenges, and the cogency of tiers of scrutiny.

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NPRM Symposium: Quick Take on New Analysis of the Comments on the NPRM to Amend the Common Rule (and the Challenge for Bioethics and the Public)

The Council on Governmental Relations (COGR), with support from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), undertook “to review and analyze the 2,186 public comments submitted in response to the 2015 Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects” or “Common Rule” Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM).

I am going to discuss some highlights of their just released report, but this is far from exhaustive and you should read the whole report.

For the non-cognoscenti this is the most important revision to the rules for U.S. human subjects research since their inception. The report is largely unfavorable to several key proposed rule changes on my first read, but you should read it yourself to make up your own mind.

I’ll share some choice passages from the analysis

The results of our review (Table 2) find significant opposition to most major proposals, with mixed support for mandated use of a single IRB and extending the Common Rule and greater support for the concept of standard security safeguards. In addition, a number of responses suggested that the NPRM is overly complex, poorly written, and not supported by data; highlighted areas that could have a substantial impact on a final rule but were not included in the NPRM (e.g., proposed security safeguards, a consent template, a list of minimal risk studies and a decision tool); and suggested that some of the proposals would adversely affect human health with little perceived benefit.

Turning to Biospecimens, where we had a conference last year that will soon generate a book with MIT press:

The majority of responses, approximately 1,520, addressed one or more of the proposed changes detailed above involving non-identified biospecimens. Of these responses, 94 – 100% of patients and members of the research community, including researchers, universities, medical centers and industry, opposed the changes. Those commenting suggested that the proposed changes will significantly reduce the availability of biospecimens for research, will have a significant negative impact on medical advances, and will adversely affect human health. Per one patient, “I am asking for life saving policy not life ending policies.” From a biorepository, “Respecting autonomy at the expense of patient lives is a significant ethical concern.”

More surprising was their finding that “Among members of the general public, 55% opposed and 45% supported one or more of the major proposed changes related to biospecimens.” (They do a better breakdown of the various sub-constituencies in the report).

Turning to “broad consent” for biospecimen use:

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Planned Parenthood And Fetal Tissue Sale: Manufactured Controversy And The Real Ethical Debate

This new post by I. Glenn Cohen appears on the Health Affairs Blog as part of a series stemming from the Fourth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 29, 2016.

In 2013 the Center for Medical Progress appeared to have secured tax-exempt status for a fake company it set up called Biomax Procurement Services. The company’s “representatives” contacted the non-profit women’s health provider Planned Parenthood staffers and led them into conversations that were secretly recorded. The result, according to their website (as reported by CNN), was “a 30-month-long investigative journalism study by The Center for Medical Progress, documenting how Planned Parenthood sells the body parts of aborted babies.”

The videos were edited down and released slowly in a way designed to paint Planned Parenthood in the worst light. While some have called it a “hoax,” that’s not a word I would use in this case. When I think of great journalistic hoaxes I think of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds (though more recent historical work suggests that the panic it caused may have been mythological). Instead what happened here, I want to suggest, is what I will call a “manufactured controversy.” [..]

Read the full post here.

Some Very Preliminary Thoughts on Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt (Texas Abortion Case) Argument

By I. Glenn Cohen

It is always dangerous to try to glean too much from oral argument, and I have only read the transcript (no recording yet) of today’s argument in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and finally I filed a brief in this case on the side of the law’s challengers so I may be suffering from some motivated reasoning. But with all those caveats, here goes:

Justice Scalia’s passing seems to have radically transformed this oral argument and likely this case. The 3 firm anti-abortion votes on the court (Alito and Roberts from their questions and earlier positions, Thomas we can infer from his earlier positions) left over after Justice Scalia’s passing seemed very much to be playing a defensive game. Many of their questions were aimed at convincing others on the Court (especially Justice Kennedy, the swing voter on these matters) to remand the case back to the lower court, much more so than focusing on giving Texas an outright win.

Appellant’s Counsel Toti’s argument barely was able to get to the merits questions in the case. Instead Justices Roberts, Alito, sometimes joined by Kennedy in these questions, repeatedly asked about evidence in the record on when various clinics closed, re-opened, and what evidence there was for the reason behind it. Toti tried to make use of the timing to her advantage as did the Justices more supportive of her side, but there was a lot of push on why this element of the record was not better developed. She was also repeatedly asked questions regarding the evidence on the capacity of remaining clinics to absorb extra patients needing abortions and what was developed in the record.

The same was true to a lesser extent in Appellee’s Counsel Keller’s argument. Justice Kennedy in particular focused on a line of questioning at page 44 of the argument that may also be significant in terms of remanding the case without resolving it:

“But I thought an underlying theme, or at least an underlying factual demonstration, is that this law has really increased the number of surgical procedures as opposed to medical procedures, and that this may not be medically wise?” Read More

Does the NAM Recommendation of Sex Selection for Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy Violate the Equal Protection Clause (Part III on my take on the NAM report)

As I said in one of my earlier posts today one of the most interesting parts of the NAM report on mitochondrial replacement therapy was its recommendation that only male embryos be implanted and not female ones. The argument is that this will eliminate the risks of germ-line transmission of anything untoward. I will leave it to others more versed in the risk factors to discuss whether this is an over-reaction (the UK did not adopt this in their recommendation) or reasonable. In the last post I discussed why politically/ethically this may get them in some hot water, but here  I want to raise a different question. Would such a recommendation be unconstitutional?

If FDA were to adopt this rule it would clearly be state action. It seems to be a state-law that favors one gender (males) over another (females) in that only males can be produced in this way. If that is right, under existing Supreme Court precedent it would be judged under “intermediate scrutiny.” To pass intermediate scrutiny, the challenged law must further an important government interest by means that are substantially related to that interest. Would this rule satisfy that test? Read More

Breaking News: NAM Releases Report on Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy (Part I Summary)

By I. Glenn Cohen

As readers know I’ve written on mitochondrial replacement therapy and its attendant ethical and regulatory issues. Today the National Academy of Medicine (formerly known as the IOM) released a terrific report today with its recommendations. I’ll have a second post with my reactions but here is a summary from the report of their recommendations. The big headline is they have recommended FDA largely move towards allowing it to go forward under a regulatory pathway with restrictions, the most important of which is the transfer only of male embryos (to avoid germ-line issues).

In the NAM’s own words:

Recommendation 1: Initial clinical investigations of mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT) should be considered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only if and when the following conditions can be met: Read More

Identified versus Statistical Lives at the Movies

Imagine you had 10 million dollars to spend to save the life of one person whose name you knew or 10,000 whose name you didn’t? How would you spend it? What would you think of a government policy that chose to save the 1 person rather than the 10,000? I would think pretty badly of such a government, but that’s exactly what happens in some popular new movies. And the expectation of the filmmakers (and my own take on audience reaction) is that the audience cheers.

sq_martianFirst, The Martian (spoiler alert) where America spends tens of millions and diverts the entirety of the space program to bring back one man left behind on Mars. Second, the new movie 33, which I have not seen yet but is based on a true story involving the successful attempt to save 33 Chilean miners trapped in a mine collapse at a huge financial cost. Read More

Mini-Symposium: The NPRM and the Future of Human Subjects Research Regulation

As discussed in other posts, HHS has issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) with significant changes to the U.S. regulation of human subjects research. Bill of Health will be hosting a mini-symposium on the topic getting some of the most important thinkers about human subjects research to weigh in on the NPRM and what it means for the field. Watch this space for more over the coming days and weeks.

NPRM Summary from HHS

As Michelle noted, the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on human subjects research is out after a long delay. For my (and many Bill of Health bloggers’) view about its predecessor ANPRM, you can check out our 2014 book, Human Subjects Research Regulation: Perspectives on the Future.

Here is HHS’s own summary of what has changed and what it thinks is most important:

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and fifteen other Federal Departments and Agencies have announced proposed revisions to modernize, strengthen, and make more effective the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects that was promulgated as a Common Rule in 1991.  A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was put on public display on September 2, 2015 by the Office of the Federal Register.  The NPRM seeks comment on proposals to better protect human subjects involved in research, while facilitating valuable research and reducing burden, delay, and ambiguity for investigators. It is expected that the NPRM will be published in the Federal Register on September 8, 2015.  There are plans to release several webinars that will explain the changes proposed in the NPRM, and a town hall meeting is planned to be held in Washington, D.C. in October. Read More