Concept illustration of DNA and genes.

The Civil Rights Challenge to Gene Patenting

By Jorge L. Contreras

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched a unique lawsuit against Myriad Genetics, challenging fifteen claims of seven patents covering various aspects of the BRCA1/2 genes and their use in diagnosing risk for breast and ovarian cancer. In mounting this case, the ACLU assembled a coalition of lawyers, scientists, counselors, patients and advocates in an unprecedented challenge not only to one company’s patents, but the entire practice of gene patenting in America. And, against the odds, they won. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics that naturally occurring DNA sequences are not patentable, a ruling that has had repercussions throughout the scientific community and the biotechnology industry.

In The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA (New York: Hachette/Algonquin, 2021), I describe the long road that led to this unlikely Supreme Court victory. It began in 2003 when the ACLU hired its first science advisor, a Berkeley-based cellist and non-profit organizer named Tania Simoncelli. At the ACLU, Simoncelli’s job was to identify science-related issues that the ACLU could do something about, from DNA fingerprinting to functional MRI brain imaging. A couple of years into the role, Simoncelli mentioned gene patenting to Chris Hansen, a veteran ACLU litigator who had been involved in cases covering mental health to school desegregation to online porn. At first, Hansen didn’t believe her. How could a company patent something inside the human body? But Simoncelli persisted, showing him articles and statistics demonstrating that, by 2005, more than 20% of the human genome was covered by patents. The realization led to Hansen’s oft-quoted exclamation, “Who can we sue?”

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

How Social Movements Have Facilitated Access to Abortion During the Pandemic

By Rachel Rebouché

Before the end of 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will reconsider its restrictions on medication abortion. The FDA’s decision could make a critical difference to the availability of medication abortion, especially if the Supreme Court abandons or continues to erode constitutional abortion rights.

Under that scenario of hostile judicial precedents, a broad movement for abortion access — including providers, researchers, advocates, and lawyers — will be immensely important to securing the availability of remote, early abortion care.

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Los Angeles, California / USA - May 1, 2020: People in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall protest the state’s COVID-19 stay at home orders in a “Fully Open California” protest.

Social Distancing, Social Protest, and the Social Constitution of a New Body of Law

By Lindsay F. Wiley

COVID-19 mitigation orders, court decisions adjudicating challenges to them, and legislation adopted to constrain similar orders in the future are constituting a new body of law governing social distancing.

The emerging law of social distancing is vital to the future of public health. It also offers more general lessons about how law interacts with individual behavior, social norms, and social contestation of what we owe each other as members of a community.

Social protests — including massive protests for racial justice and against police violence as well as much smaller anti-lockdown protests — are playing an important role in these developments.

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Gavel and a house on a white background. Concept art for eviction.

Eviction Moratorium Cases Reveal Courts’ Misunderstanding of Public Health

By Mahathi Vemireddy and Faith Khalik

Amid the COVID-19 Delta variant surge, the federal eviction moratorium — a key public health protection — will soon expire, and faces tough prospects for extension due to a series of legal battles.

These legal challenges highlight a narrow — and dangerous — conception of public health held by some courts, one which fails to recognize how social conditions such as housing can compound the impact of a virus. To protect our nation’s health, this misunderstanding of public health must be remedied.

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Person typing on computer.

COVID-19 and the New Reproductive Justice Movement

By Mary Ziegler

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed advocacy for reproductive rights and reproductive justice in what previously had been called an endless, unchanging, and intractable abortion conflict.

The pandemic — and the stay-at-home orders it required — finally shifted the movement’s focus to abortion access, rather than abortion rights, as exemplified by its emphasis on medication and telehealth abortion.

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The White House, Washington, DC.

What Can the Federal Government Do When States Make Dangerous Decisions?

By Jennifer S. Bard

The threat posed to the welfare, economy, and security of the United States by the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus is as serious as any we have ever confronted.

But, at the same time that the federal government is spending billions of dollars on distributing vaccines, and exerting their authority by prohibiting evictions and requiring masks on public transportation, many individual states are not just refusing to take effective measures to stop the spread, but also are pouring gasoline on the fire by doing all they can to undermine even the remaining, weak guidelines published by the CDC. Some have gone so far as to restrict the flow of information by prohibiting public health officials from disseminating news about the vaccines provided by the federal government.

The effects of these actions not only promote the spread of COVID-19, but also fuel its mutation into new forms, and cannot be confined by any existing geographic or cartographic boundary. So how is the federal government allowing this to happen? It’s not for lack of authority.

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