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.
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.
Courts coalesce around the view that patient fall injuries are actionable only as medical malpractice except when the care provider acts with intent or malice. This approach gives providers of medical care all the protections that benefit defendants in medical malpractice cases (compulsory suit-screening panel procedure, merit certificate / affidavit as a prerequisite for filing suit, stringent and short time-bars for filing suits that use both limitations and repose mechanisms, strict same-specialty requirement for expert witnesses, damage caps, and other protections).
The recent decision of the Louisiana Court of Appeals, White v. Glen Retirement System, — So.3d —- (La.App.2d Cir. 2016) 2016 WL 1664502, continues this trend. Read More
For an ambitious, aggressive disease like Zika, Texas is an ideal home. Earlier this week we learned that Zika—a nasty virus that has spread to over 25 countries—was transmitted by sex to a resident of Dallas. Six more cases of Zika have also been confirmed in Harris County, Texas. The appearance of Zika in Texas may be happenstance, but Texas’s health policies will make it easier for Zika to spread. Among other problems, Texas (1) fails to teach students about safe sex and reduces access to affordable, effective contraceptives; (2) has blocked access to Medicaid for up to 2 million low-income residents; and (3) is trying to restrict if not eliminate access to safe abortion. Not a bad place for a communicable disease that can spread through sex and cause birth defects.
Every defendant in a suit for medically inflicted injuries wants to be a “healthcare provider.” This status entitles the defendant to categorize the suit as “medical malpractice” and become eligible to special litigation advantages, which include shortened limitations and repose periods, dismissal of suits not verified by experts, and statutory caps on damages.
In Verticor, Ltd. v. Wood, — S.W.3d —- 2015 WL 7166024 (Tex.App.–Austin 2015), the manufacturer of Eclipse Shield – a spinal implant for fusion – claimed to be a “healthcare provider” for purposes of the Texas Medical Liability Act (TMLA). The purpose of this claim was to recharacterize the products liability action filed against Verticor into a “healthcare liability claim” that can proceed to court only upon showing of medical malpractice verified by an expert. To establish this claim, Verticor argued that it provides the Eclipse Shield “for, to, or on behalf of a patient during the patient’s medical care, treatment, or confinement” under its “device manufacturer” license. This service, explained Verticor, makes it a “healthcare provider.” Read More
With the Supreme Court ready to review the constitutionality of restrictions on abortion providers in Texas, new research from the Texas Policy Evaluation Project suggests that between 100,000–240,000 Texas women ages 18 to 49 have attempted to terminate a pregnancy on their own (that is, without help from a licensed medical professional). According to the authors, “the populations we found to be most familiar with abortion self-induction are among those that have been most directly affected by the closure of abortion clinics in the state.” As a result, the study predicts, “abortion self-induction will increase as clinic-based care becomes more difficult to access.”
This data reinforces that efforts to ban, restrict, or otherwise interfere with efforts to obtain legal abortion don’t stop abortion—they often push women to obtain abortion by other means that are far more dangerous.
Those consequences, as it turns out, are what led one conservative Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, to support abortion rights. Justice Powell was no right-to-privacy diehard; he infamously cast the deciding vote upholding the Georgia sodomy ban in Bowers v. Hardwick. But when it came to reproductive freedom, Justice Powell joined the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade and continued to support abortion rights while sitting on the Court.
According to Justice Powell’s biographer, an incident from earlier in his career reinforced that if women lacked access to legal abortion, the result would be unsafe, off-the-books procedures:
As I wrote previously – see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – whether a tort action sounds in “medical malpractice” as opposed to general negligence, or vice versa, can be crucial. Suits sounding in “medical malpractice” must satisfy special requirements that include shortened limitations periods, statutes of repose, and expert affidavits (or certificates of merit) at filing. In many states, those suits are also subject to special damage caps. Suits sounding in general negligence are free from these constraints. Filing and prosecuting those suits is consequently not as onerous and expensive as filing and prosecuting medical malpractice actions. For that reason, we witness many disputes over this pivotal categorization issue. Read More
Allison M. Whelan, J.D.
Senior Fellow, Center for Biotechnology & Global Health Policy, University of California, Irvine School of Law
On March 12, 2015, Texas Representative Elliot Naishtat (Austin) filed HB 3183, which would repeal the Texas law that currently prohibits pregnant women from exercising their advance directives. The existing statute includes the following language: “I understand that under Texas law this directive has no effect if I have been diagnosed as pregnant.” The bill strikes this sentence and would allow health care providers and medical institutions to honor a woman’s wishes about end-of-life care.
The bill is known as “Marlise’s Law,” named for Marlise Muñoz of Fort Worth, Texas, who was kept on mechanical support for two months after she was declared brain dead in 2013. Muñoz collapsed in her home in November 2013 when she was 14 weeks pregnant. She was declared brain dead two days later but John Peter Smith Hospital said it was legally prevented from removing life support because she was pregnant. Read More