Westworld and Bioethics

[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: Continue reading

REGISTER NOW (1/23/17)! PFC’s 5th Annual Health Law Year in P/Review

The Fifth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review symposium will feature leading experts discussing major developments during 2016 and what to watch out for in 2017. The discussion at this day-long event will cover hot topics in such areas as health policy under the new administration, regulatory issues in clinical research, law at the end-of-life, patient rights and advocacy, pharmaceutical policy, reproductive health, and public health law.

This year’s Health Law Year in P/Review is sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School, Harvard Health Publications at Harvard Medical School, Health Affairs, the Hastings Center, the Program On Regulation, Therapeutics, And Law (PORTAL) in the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, with support from the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund. 

Agenda Continue reading

“That I Don’t Know”: The Uncertain Futures of Our Bodies in America

By Wendy S. Salkin

I. Our Bodies, Our Body Politic

On March 30, at a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin, an audience member asked then-presidential-hopeful Donald J. Trump: “[W]hat is your stance on women’s rights and their right to choose in their own reproductive health?” What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth with Chris Matthews. Here is an excerpt from that event:

MATTHEWS: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no as a principle?
TRUMP: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.
MATTHEWS: For the woman.
TRUMP: Yeah, there has to be some form.
MATTHEWS: Ten cents? Ten years? What?
TRUMP: I don’t know. That I don’t know. That I don’t know.

Much has been made of the fact that President-Elect Trump claimed that women who undergo abortion procedures should face “some sort of punishment.” Considerably less has been made of the fact that our President-Elect, in a moment of epistemic humility, expressed that he did not know what he would do, though he believed something had to be done. (He later revised his position, suggesting that the performer of the abortion rather than the woman undergoing the abortion would “be held legally responsible.”)

I am worried about the futures of our bodies, as, I think, are many. That a Trump Presidency makes many feel fear is not a novel contribution. Nor will I be able to speak to the very many, and varied, ways our bodies may be compromised in and by The New America—be it through removal from the country (see especially the proposed “End Illegal Immigration Act”), removal from society (see especially the proposed “Restoring Community Safety Act”), or some other means (see especially the proposed “Repeal and Replace Obamacare Act”).

But, I am like President-Elect Trump in this way: Like him, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what to say about what will happen to our bodies or to our body politic. So instead, today, I will take this opportunity to point to one aspect of the changing face of access to reproductive technologies that has already become a battleground in the fight over women’s bodies and will, I suspect, take center stage in the debate over the right and the ability to choose in coming years. Continue reading

Whole Woman’s Health and the Future of Abortion Regulation

By John A. Robertson

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (WWH) is the most important abortion case since Casey in 1992, and a major setback for the anti-choice movement.  By allowing courts to weigh the importance of the health benefits of a regulation, it will most likely invalidate most TRAP laws, which usually only marginally advance health while making it more difficult for women to access abortion.  WWH, however, will not stop the anti-choice movement from pressing its fight against abortion in other ways.  It now controls many state legislatures, and more legislation in areas left open by WWH may be expected.

Future health-related regulation will have to hew to the WWH line of providing real benefit, at least if substantially limits access to abortion.  But close questions may still arise.  What if a state has a valid health justification for a regulation that does limit access to abortion, as Jonathan Will notes would occur if a state law that directly promotes women’s health leads to that one clinic closing, as might occur in a state like Mississippi?  Here there would be a substantial burden on access, but given the health benefit of the law, which interest should take priority?  Neither Casey nor WWH are clear on this point.  In my view the question will turn on how great is the health benefit from the requirement.  A state, for example, should be able to close the only clinic in the state if it was as derelict as the Gosnell clinic.  In that case, however, one could show serious danger to women’s health and life that would be comparable or even greater than the risk of childbirth.  If the health benefit is less but still substantial, the question is harder.  Such a situation would call into question whether the state itself must allow even a sub-standard abortion facility even when acceptable facilities exist across a state line. (See Jackson Women’s Health v. Currier.) Continue reading

Whole Woman’s Health – Some preliminary thoughts on benefits, purposes, and fetal status

The Supreme Court’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health is sure to be dissected in the coming days, weeks, and months.  In the meantime, I wanted to quickly reengage the discussion about the status of the “purpose prong” of Casey and what, if anything, Whole Woman’s Health tells us about it.  While Justice Breyer’s analysis in the majority opinion does not seem to be couched expressly in terms of Casey’s purpose prong, the majority’s willingness to assess the applicable laws’ benefits may ultimately be purpose dressed in different clothing.  If there is not sufficient evidence of a law’s benefit, there could be a problem.

As a quick refresher, recall that Casey prohibits laws that have either the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus.  While most folks can readily associate Casey’s “undue burden” test in terms of abortion restrictions that have the effect of placing obstacles, Priscilla Smith and Caitlin Borgmann, have written about courts seemingly ignoring Casey’s other mandate that laws should not have the purpose of even trying to place such obstacles (regardless of whether they succeed in creating that effect).  This avoidance of the purpose prong coupled with great deference to the asserted justifications of the legislature (without the kind of benefits inquiry seen in Whole Woman’s Health) has historically led to many TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) laws being upheld.

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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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Surrogacy Contracts, Abortion Conditions, and Parenting Licenses

By Dov Fox

Everything went fine the last time for Melissa Cook, when the 48-year old mother of four carried a child for a family back in 2013 to supplement her office job salary. This time was different. First were the triplets. She had been impregnated with three embryos, created using eggs from a 20-something donor and sperm from the intended father who paid for everything. Then, it was that the man, Chester Moore, turned out to be a deaf 50-year-old postal worker who lived with his parents. Finally, was that Moore asked Cook to abort one of the fetuses. He said that he had run out of money to support a third child and worried the high-risk multiple pregnancy would endanger the health of any resulting children.

Cook, who is pro-life, refused. A battle over parental rights of the triplets, all boys, began even before they were born (prematurely, at 28 weeks). Moore argued that his surrogacy contract with Cook, explicitly enforceable under California law, made clear that he was the sole legal parent. Cook sued for custody, notwithstanding her prior agreement that any children resulting from the pregnancy would be his to raise. She argued that the statute, by authorizing private contracts for gestation of a human being, reduces children to “commodities” for sale, and a surrogate like her to a “breeding animal or incubator.” Continue reading

SCOTUS and More Surprises on Zubik

After the 2014 SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby, in which a closely-held for-profit employer won the argument that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected it against enforcement of the government’s contraceptives coverage mandate, all eyes have been on what SCOTUS would do in response to a challenge to the very same accommodation it toyed with as a less restrictive alternative in that case.  The Court agreed to hear a consolidated set of challenges to the accommodation brought by several religious non-profit employers who seek outright exemption from the mandate (under the case name Zubik et al.) – but then Justice Scalia passed away, leaving the Court with the unpalatable prospect of a 4-4 decision.

SCOTUS has pulled a few tricks out of its hat to avoid that possibility.  First, it surprised us by seeking supplemental briefs on a possible compromise solution, which would ostensibly allow women to access contraceptives (as the government desires) while not burdening the religious employers (as they desire).  The parties basically responded, as politely as would be expected, that some compromise was indeed possible – but not on terms the other could or would actually accept.  Nonetheless, today, SCOTUS surprised us again – seeing enough glimmer of a possible compromise to decline to decide the cases on the merits, instead returning them to the lower courts to work something out.

So what does that mean?  In my view, count it as a win for the government.  Eight out of nine circuit courts ruled in the government’s favor below, holding that the accommodation it had already offered did not substantially burden employers’ religious beliefs – which means that RFRA’s further protection, demanding a compelling government interest satisfied in the least restrictive way, does not even get triggered. These courts have no reason to change that determination now.  Even if there is a compromise that would be less burdensome on religious employers (which I don’t think there is), such a compromise is not required under RFRA unless there is a substantial burden.  And SCOTUS hasn’t said there is.

What we have here is, ironically, precisely the same result we’d have had if SCOTUS had issued a 4-4 decision.  The lower court opinions will almost certainly stand, and we’ll likely still have a bit of a circuit split. So now, we wait on a new president.  The Donald would presumably destroy the ACA/mandate entirely, whereas Hillary would hopefully be able to deliver a ninth justice that will recognize RFRA’s reasonable limits.  Religious freedom is critically important, but so too is accepting the government’s dramatic efforts to be accommodating, short of letting every religious believer be an island unto himself.

From Chance to Choice to Court

[Cross-posted from the Huffington Post Blog]

By Dov Fox

It used to be that whether you got the child you wanted — or one you hadn’t planned on — was left to cosmic fate or the randomness of reproductive biology. Now, new powers of reproductive medicine and technology promise to deliver us from the vagaries of the natural lottery.

The likes of voluntary sterilization and embryo screening give people who can afford them greater measures of control over procreation. Except, that is, when reproductive professionals make mistakes that frustrate efforts to pursue or avoid pregnancy or parenthood.

When, for example — just a few recent cases — a pharmacist fills a woman’s birth control prescription with prenatal vitamins. Or when a fertility clinic implants embryos carrying the hereditary disease that a couple underwent in vitro fertilization (IVF) to screen out. Just this week comes another report of losing IVF embryos.

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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.

10 Observations About the Supreme Court Argument in Whole Woman’s Health

Supreme Court

Flickr Creative Commons—Andrew Raff

By Gregory M. Lipper

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, a constitutional challenge to a pair of Texas restrictions on abortion providers. The first provision requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges from a hospital no more than 30 miles from their clinic; for a variety of reasons, these privileges are very difficult for abortion providers to obtain. The second provision requires abortion clinics to meet the rigorous—and often prohibitively expensive—requirements governing ambulatory surgical centers (this was referred to as the ASC law). If allowed to take effect, these requirements would cause 3/4 of Texas abortion clinics to close and leave just 10 clinics to serve over 5 million women.

The requirements were struck down by the district court, reinstated by the Fifth Circuit, and temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court, which is now hearing the merits of the challenge.

Based on my review of the transcript, here are ten observations about the argument:

1. Justice Ginsburg opened the argument with a procedural curveball.

With the law’s challengers going first, most people presumably expected the argument to start with sharp questioning from, say, Justice Alito. Instead, the Center for Reproductive Rights’s Stephanie Toti got just two sentences out before she was interrupted by Justice Ginsburg. The former civil-procedure professor wanted to know about claim preclusion: in particular, whether the challenges, in this case, to the admitting-privileges requirement were foreclosed by the plaintiffs’ unsuccesful facial challenge, in an earlier case, to those same requirements. This and other procedural inquiries dominated Toti’s argument.

2. All roads lead to the record.

Several of the conservative Justices interrogated Toti about the proof that the law’s requirements would cause clinics to close. Toti provided some infromation about how laws would affect clinics, but also repeatedly alluded to more detailed information that she would supply during her rebuttal. This approach may have prolonged the questioning on this point:

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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?” Continue reading

Abortion Is Way More Common Than Most Voters Think

By Gregory M. Lipper

A new Vox survey reveals that a majority of registered voters underestimate the rate of abortion, and that the abortion rate is most likely to be understimated by men, college graduates, and those with higher salaries:

More educated and higher-income Americans are especially likely to believe that abortion is rare.

For example, 54 percent of Americans without a college degree underestimate abortion rates, compared with 70 percent of those with graduate degrees. And 51 percent of those earning less than $50,000 underestimate the frequency of abortion, compared with 69 percent of those earning more than $175,000.

The split happens when you look at gender, too. Women would near certainly have more experience with abortion than men. Our poll shows that 67 percent of men underestimate the frequency of abortion, compared with 57 percent of women.

Fortunately for those who support abortion rights, no Supreme Court Justices are wealthy, well-educated men…

Greg Lipper (@theglipper) is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Zika Messes with Texas

Photo: Texas + Fence

Flickr Creative Commons—Adam Simmons

By Gregory M. Lipper

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.

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Female Viagra: Discrimination or Medicalization or Something Else?

Earlier this year, the flibanserin pill, aka “female Viagra,” was introduced to the market, generating tons of headlines. After many years in which the plain old (male) Viagra was the sole sexual stimulator in the market, flibanserin was finally approved last August, following an 18-6 vote by the FDA advisory committee.

Before approval, flibanserin was rejected twice, and reports say that even members on the advisory board who voted in favor still had misgivings despite their final decision. Their concerns were driven by doubts regarding flibanserin’s effectiveness to treat low sexual drives. Trials showed that women who took the pill ‘earned’ only 0.7 “sexually satisfying events” in a month, whereas the drop-out rate due to negative side effects was relatively high – 14%. The side effects associated with flibanserin are low blood pressure, dizziness and such.

So what made this low cost-benefit ratio get the advisory committee’s approval the third time around? Some credit mass political campaigns promoted by women’s organizations claiming to advocate women’s interests. One position advocated by the organizations presented the pill as a treatment for a legit medical problem called HSDD (hypoactive sexual desire disorder), and it was said to be a step towards realization of women’s sexuality. The other side of the debate pushed back against what they perceive as medicalizing another realm of women’s sexuality and subjecting it (again) to the gaze of the male expert.

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Linda Greenhouse Wins Headline of the Year

By Gregory M. Lipper

“Sex After 50 at the Supreme Court” is the title of today’s Turkey Day column by the peerless Linda Greenhouse. She takes a saucy look at upcoming Supreme Court cases on contraception and abortion and the role of religion in motivating restrictions on reproductive rights and health.

Here’s a taste:

But here’s what’s the same: sex, women and religion.

Among the achievements of the Griswold decision was the separation, as a constitutional matter, of sex from procreation. Although the court viewed the issue through the lens of the privacy of the marital bedroom, that notion of liberty, once established, couldn’t remain confined to husband and wife — nor, eventually, to man and woman.

As we learned from the arguments and dissents in last June’s same-sex marriage decision, the separation of marriage — let along sex — from procreation remains deeply unsettling to segments of the religiously conservative population.

Gobble up the whole column here. Happy Thanksgiving!

Greg Lipper is Senior Litigation Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. You can follow him on Twitter at @theglipper.

Texas, Self-Induced Abortion, and an Ode to Justice Powell

Flickr/Creative Commons—Edson Chilundo

Flickr/Creative Commons—Edson Chilundo

By Gregory M. Lipper

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:

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Abortion Derangement Syndrome, Missouri Edition

Flickr/Creative Commons—Nicola

Flickr/Creative Commons—Nicola

by Gregory M. Lipper

Although the biggest abortion-related news last week came from the U.S. Supreme Court, a Missouri state senator (turned Attorney General candidate) took the prize for most bizarre.

Senator Kurt Schaefer—chairman of the Missouri Senate’s interim “Committee on the Sanctity of Life”—wrote a stern letter to the University of Missouri; he suggested that state law prohibited a Ph.D student from researching the effects of Missouri’s mandatory 72-hour waiting period for women who want to have an abortion. The law he cited provides, “It shall be unlawful for any public funds to be expended for the purpose of performing or assisting an abortion, not necessary to save the life of the mother, or for the purpose of encouraging or counseling a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life.”

This farfetched attempt to censor academic research on the effects of government policy raises a pair of legal issues (and one psychological observation…).

First, Senator Schaefer’s interpretation of the statute is, to put it mildly, a stretch. The student isn’t going to be “performing or assisting an abortion”; she’s going to be studying abortion—more precisely, the 72 hours between when a woman seeks an abortion and is allowed to have an abortion.

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Texas, Abortion, and the Supreme Court – Part II

[cross-posted at Prawfsblawg]

By Jessie Hill

In this second post on the certiorari petition in Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, I want to consider the likelihood that the Supreme Court will take this case, and if it does, what it is likely to do with it.

I think it’s a very good bet that the Supreme Court will decide to hear this case this Term, perhaps in conjunction with one of the other cases that deals with admitting privileges laws – either Currier v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, another admitting privileges case, in which the Fifth Circuit actually enjoined an admitting-privileges requirement that would have shut down the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, or Planned Parenthood v. Van Hollen, in which the Seventh Circuit enjoined an admitting-privileges law. However, both of those cases are still at the preliminary-injunction stage, unlike Whole Women’s Health, which was rushed to trial on an expedited schedule. Still, SCOTUS has been holding onto the petition in Jackson Women’s Health Organization since the spring and may well decide to consolidate it with Whole Women’s Health. (No petition has yet been filed in Van Hollen, as that case is back in front of the district court and scheduled for trial.)

There are a lot of reasons for the Court to grant cert in at least one of these cases.

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A Circuit Split on Contraceptives Coverage

Perhaps foreshadowed by the dissent in the 10th Circuit that I wrote about here, the 8th Circuit has now officially launched a circuit split regarding the legal validity of the accommodation that allows modified compliance/objection to the contraceptives coverage mandate.  Unlike the seven other circuits to have considered the question since Hobby Lobby, the 8th Circuit yesterday issued opinions upholding preliminary injunctions in two cases (here and here), thereby preventing the mandate+accommodation from being enforced against the objecting non-profits.

First, the 8th Circuit determined that the accommodation still substantially burdens objectors’ religious beliefs because it imposes significant financial penalties if they refuse to comply with a requirement that they view as violative of those religious beliefs. As I explained previously, I do think the court was right to focus on the monetary consequences of objection, rather than assuming that merely filing the required paperwork for an accommodation does not or cannot actually make objectors complicit in the way they claim it does.

Like SCOTUS in Hobby Lobby, the 8th Circuit then went on to assume that the contraceptives coverage mandate advances a compelling government interest, which is the next step in the analysis under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act once the substantial burden test is met.  So far, so good.  But that’s the end of my agreement.

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