People protesting with signs that say "healthcare is a human right" and "medicare for all."

Why We Need a Transformative Right-to-Health Pandemic Treaty Now

By Martín Hevia and Ximena Benavides

Acknowledging what went wrong during the COVID-19 pandemic is crucial to any pandemic lawmaking efforts. Chief among these concerns should be the centrality of human rights to global health security.

Health systems that lack universality and inclusivity will always fall short on disease surveillance, detection, and response during health emergencies, at the risk of not reaching all populations. The risk of exclusion exceeds national borders. Regional and global health governance favor the ‘competition of a few’ over (formal) solidarity, which explains why some of the small number of international collaborative initiatives aiming to reach the poorest countries during the pandemic are falling short.

Nonetheless, human rights remain at the periphery of the global health security conversation and the pandemic treaty debate.

Following the call of dozens of world leaders for a new treaty or another legally binding instrument to strengthen pandemic preparedness and response, the World Health Assembly will convene a special session in November 2021 to consider a new binding agreement that could address key failings in the COVID-19 response, including the insufficient international cooperation to implement the International Health Regulations’ (2005) public health capacities. Such an initiative should also serve as the long-awaited international policy-making window to address our health systems’ deep structural problems.

How can a pandemic treaty positively transform our health systems? In this contribution, we outline four core strategies.

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(Institute for the feeble-minded, Lincoln, Ill. / Library of Congress)

Brittney Poolaw and the Long Tradition of State-Sponsored Control of Women and Their Fertility

By Lauren Breslow

On October 5, 2021, a 20-year-old Native American woman, Brittney Poolaw, was convicted by an Oklahoma jury of manslaughter for the death of her 17-week-old, non-viable fetus.

Her conviction stands as a modern recapitulation of the historical violations that women, especially Black and Brown women, have endured regarding their fertility.

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hospital equipment

The Import of the UNCRPD and Disability Justice for Pandemic Preparedness and Response

By Joel Michael Reynolds and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

During the COVID-19 crisis, many nation-states did not consult or substantively take into consideration treaties protecting the rights of people with disabilities when developing their pandemic responses.

For example, the United Nations’ 2008 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) is an international human rights treaty intended to protect the rights and dignity of all persons with disabilities. It articulates principles of non-discrimination (see especially Articles 2, 3, and 5) and broader obligations upon specific parties, such as states parties, which are obligated to protect the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities (see Article 4, et al.).

The failures to uphold these principles and obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic were met with a swift response. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) produced guidelines on COVID-19 and the rights of persons with disabilities in April of 2020, as well as a policy brief in May of that year.

This commentary outlines three of the more important considerations for international pandemic lawmaking — both for specific instruments and wider deliberation — with respect to people with disabilities in general and the United Nations’ 2008 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in particular.

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Los Angeles, California, United States. June 23, 2021: #FreeBritney rally at LA Downtown Grand Park during a conservatorship hearing for Britney Spears.

How Adult Guardianship Law Fails to Protect Contraceptive Decision-Making Rights

By Kaitlynn Milvert

After Britney Spears testified this past summer about her struggle to have her intrauterine device (IUD) removed while under conservatorship, many commentators posed a simple, but critical question: Can conservators (or guardians) make contraceptive decisions for those under their care?

Attempting to answer that question reveals an area of state guardianship law where guardians’ authority is particularly murky and ill-defined. Reform is needed to address the restrictions on reproductive decision-making rights that adults under guardianship currently face.

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UN United Nations general assembly building with world flags flying in front - First Avenue, New York City, NY, USA

Legal Capacity and Persons with Disabilities’ Struggle to Reclaim Control over Their Lives

The Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop provides a forum for discussion of new scholarship in these fields from the world’s leading experts. Though the Workshop is typically open to the public, it is not currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of our presenters will contribute blog posts summarizing their work, which we are happy to share here on Bill of Health.

By Matthew S. Smith & Michael Ashley Stein

Persons with disabilities face an ongoing struggle to reclaim power and control over their lives.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is an important tool in this struggle.

In mental health care settings, the CRPD has challenged states and practitioners to reject coercive forms of care orchestrated by substitute decision-makers — be they clinicians, family members, or court appointees — in favor of modalities that preserve and privilege individuals’ direct control over their care.

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New York, NY, USA May 13 The charging bull of Wall Street has been a staple of the New York Financial district for over 30 years.

The Feminist Political Economy of Health Justice

By Jennifer Cohen

Profit-motivated economic activity conflicts with the realization of population health and health justice.

To work toward health justice, we must recognize health as a function of (1) capitalist economic development processes, including (2) gendered and racialized divisions of labor. Together, these heighten the contradiction between the profit motive and the domestic and global requirements of public health. This contradiction is also evident in the ways (3) markets can misallocate inputs to health (e.g., hand sanitizer, personal protective equipment for medical practitioners) and how most people obtain health (e.g., as “consumers”).

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Activists and concerned residents of New York City gathered at Union Square to demand Free, Safe and Legal Abortion on Sept 12, 2021.

Health Justice Meets Reproductive Justice

By Rachel Rebouché

Over the past few weeks, the headlines have been dominated by the implementation of a Texas “heartbeat” law. The law, which prohibits abortions after detection of fetal cardiac activity, “shall be enforced exclusively through . . . private civil actions” and “no enforcement may be undertaken by an officer of the state or local government.” For that reason, the Fifth Circuit, and then the Supreme Court, declined to enjoin the law’s application because, in part, no one had yet to enforce it. The Court did not opine on the law’s constitutionality, even though the statute directly contradicts precedent protecting abortion rights before viability. Indeed, as the DOJ argued in its recent lawsuit against Texas, the state designed the law specifically to circumvent judicial review.

What does Texas’s abortion ban have to do with health justice? The answer may not seem obvious because of how the debate over Texas’s law has been framed. Commentary has focused on whether or not litigants have standing to challenge the law or whether the federal government could successfully intervene to stop enforcement of the law. And these are important questions, especially for the providers and those “aiding and abetting” them, who are subject to the lawsuits of private citizens suing for $10,000 per procedure in violation of the law.

The costs of this law, however, could far exceed these potential damages. A health justice perspective highlights those costs and how lack of access to abortion entrenches economic and racial inequality.

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Abortion rights protest following the Supreme Court decision for Whole Women's Health in 2016

Beyond Abortion: The Far-Reaching Implications of SB 8’s Enforcement Mechanism

By Cathy Zhang

The United States Supreme Court’s refusal to block Texas’s SB 8 abortion restriction earlier this month foreshadowed an uncertain future for abortion jurisprudence and put reproductive rights at the center of national discourse.

But abortion is not the only right at stake: the novel enforcement mechanism behind SB 8 may soon appear in a wide range of legislation, making it more difficult to challenge unconstitutional laws.

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U.S. Supreme Court

There’s No Justice Without Health Justice

By Yolonda Wilson

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the eviction moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The Court reasoned that, among other things, the eviction moratorium was an overreach by the CDC. That is, even in light of a global pandemic where being unhoused increases one’s risk of acute COVID-19 infection and subsequent serious illness, the Court rejected the CDC’s argument for the connection between housing justice and health justice. The Court raised several telling rhetorical questions in their decision that were intended to show the potentially troubling slippery slope that would commence if the moratorium were allowed to stand:

Could the CDC, for example, mandate free grocery delivery to the homes of the sick or vulnerable? Require manufacturers to provide free computers to enable people to work from home? Order telecommunications companies to provide free high-speed Internet service to facilitate remote work?

Whereas the Court viewed the eviction moratorium as an overreach that would lead to unthinkably absurd consequences for other sectors of social and economic life, a Black feminist conception of justice, as expressed, for example, in the historic statement of the Combahee River Collective, is necessarily grounded in a sense of the importance of community, rather than as a mere collection of individuals who may have little to no connection with or obligations to one another. Though the Court prioritized the interests of landlords and real estate agents, a Black feminist conception of justice foregrounds the needs of the overall community, such that if the well-being of the community depended on free grocery delivery to the sick and vulnerable, then so be it. The community rises and falls together, and so justice must account for the whole, not merely the well-heeled. Implicit in this conception of justice is an understanding that the community can only thrive, can only aspire to a Black feminist conception of justice, to the degree that the community is well or ill.

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abortion protest outside supreme court.

Pregnancy Loss, Abortion Rights, and a Holistic Reproductive Justice Movement

The Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop provides a forum for discussion of new scholarship in these fields from the world’s leading experts. Though the Workshop is typically open to the public, it is not currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of our presenters will contribute blog posts summarizing their work, which we are happy to share here on Bill of Health.

By Greer Donley and Jill Wieber Lens

In the summer of 2020, celebrity Chrissy Teigen shared her son’s stillbirth with her tens of millions of followers on social media, including photos of her agony at her son’s simultaneous birth and death.

Teigen and her husband, John Legend, are noted supporters of abortion rights. After Jack’s death, Planned Parenthood tweeted its condolences: “We’re so sorry to hear that Chrissy Teigen and John Legend lost their son, and we admire them for sharing their story.”

Backlash was swift, accusing both Teigen and Planned Parenthood of hypocrisy, questioning how one could believe abortion involves only a “clump of cells,” yet grieve a pregnancy loss.

This anecdote perfectly highlights the perceived conflict between pregnancy loss and abortion rights — that any recognition of loss in the context of stillbirth or miscarriage could cause a slippery slope to fetal personhood.

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