After nearly four years fighting about whether and when employers may exclude contraceptive coverage from employee health plans (and even block others from providing that coverage), it’s perhaps refreshing to see less controversial cases. And few healthcare-exemption cases are less controversial than those brought by parents who object to vaccinating their children. Although the challenged laws are objectively more intrusive than the contraceptive regulations—vaccination laws require parents to get the offending treatment injected into their children—courts thus far have correctly dismissed these challenges with little fanfare.
This dynamic surfaced again in a recent federal trial-court decision in California, in which the court dismissed a federal and state constitutional challenge to California legislation repealing the “personal belief exemption” to requirements that those entering schools and child-care facilities get vaccinated against diseases—including diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and other dreadful ailments. The court acknowledged that eliminating the personal-belief exemption “raises principled and spirited religious and conscientious objections by genuinely caring parents and concerned citizens,” but stated that “the wisdom of the Legislature’s decision is not for this Court to decide.” Because the legislature decided to scrap the personal-belief exemption, California now exempts only those children (1) with actual medical reasons for avoiding the vaccination, (2) who are home schooled, or (3) who qualify for an Individualized Education Program under federal disabilty law. That’s a much more limited and manageable group of exemptees.
Although quite a relief for those seeking to minimize gratuitous suffering from preventable diseases, the court’s decision implicates several knotty legal issues and is worth exploring further.
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 →
In response to the religious objections levied against the contraceptives coverage mandate at issue in Hobby Lobby, Zubik, and gobs of other cases, many have argued that this was really a matter of subjugating women – not about religion per se. Well, now we have a test case: Vermont’s governor just signed into law a requirement that public and private health insurance cover vasectomies without copays and deductibles. There won’t be the same arguments about abortifacients here, but many religious employers should object just the same, if they’re being consistent. Now let’s watch and see…
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.
I love the Little Sisters of the Poor. As an undergraduate student, I fulfilled my public health program’s service requirements by volunteering at their nursing home in St. Louis. Each week, I would drive from my pristine, Jesuit college campus to the neglected part of the city. The sisters’ home was on an abandoned block without a street sign. The sister’s “neighbors” were a few burnt-out homes and mostly over-grown lots.
Inside, the nuns housed and loved the most vulnerable. I volunteered on the floor with residents suffering from dementia. I remember one nun in particular, Sister Isabella, who had given her entire life to caring for our elderly poor. Every hour or so, Sister Isabella would greet one resident who could no longer speak audibly nor open her eyes. Sister Isabella would hug her, sing to her, and often take her outside to feel the sunshine. This, in addition, to cleaning up after the residents, leading prayer before meals, and ensuring each resident got out of his or her bed each day.
Sister Isabella—and the Little Sisters in general—have remained imprinted in my memory. They have been a tremendous example to follow. When the rest of society, many Catholic churches included, had given up on the “least of our brothers and sisters,” the Little Sisters quietly went about doing the work of God. My admiration for them has made the recent Supreme Court case—and the battle over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage—all the more difficult. Continue reading →
The Wall Street Journal published a story earlier this week about an increase in the number of Americans enrolling in healthcare sharing ministries: faith-based alternatives to standard health insurance. According to the Journal, the number of participants in these ministries has grown from under 200,000, before the Affordable Care Act was enacted, to approximately 500,000 today. Under 26 U.S.C. § 5000A(d)(2)(B), participants in these ministries are exempt from the Act’s individual mandate, which requires most Americans to either obtain qualifying health insurance coverage or pay a tax.
As the Journal article makes clear, however, participants in healthcare ministries lack many of the protections otherwise provided to patients by the Affordable Care Act. For example,
Ministries often don’t cover preexisting conditions;
Ministries often don’t cover preventive care; and
Ministries often don’t cover contraception, maternity care, or mental-health care.
If and when coverage disputes arise, moreover, “[m]inistries generally don’t allow members to sue and require disagreements to be settled by arbitration and mediation.”
That’s how Tara Murtha describes the lawsuit brought by Real Alternatives and its three (male) employees seeking to enjoin application of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive-coverage regulations. This lawsuit is different than the ones currently before the Supreme Court: Real Alternatives is not a religious organization, and its employees argue that the mere availability of contraceptive coverage in their own plans violates their rights under RFRA—even though nobody is making them use that coverage.
The plaintiffs are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal organization that has also represented many of the for-profit corporations and nonprofit religious organizations bringing free-exercise challenges to the coverage regulations and accommodation. Unlike most of ADF’s other clients in these cases, Real Alternatives acknowledges that its opposition to the coverage regulations arises purely from its opposition to the use of birth control; there is no claimed religious basis for this opposition.
I am obsessed with avoiding severe dementia. As a person who has always valued intellectual function, the prospect of lingering in a dysfunctional cognitive state is distasteful — an intolerable indignity. For me, such mental debilitation soils the remembrances to be left with my survivors and undermines the life narrative as a vibrant, thinking, and articulate figure that I assiduously cultivated. (Burdening others is also a distasteful prospect, but it is the vision of intolerable indignity that drives my planning of how to respond to a diagnosis of progressive dementia such as Alzheimers).
An alternative strategy would be to allow myself to decline into incompetency, but beforehand to dictate, in an advance directive, rejection of future life-sustaining medical interventions. This strategy would probably work as applied to serious maladies such as kidney disease, lethal cancer, or congestive heart failure. The disturbing issue then becomes timing. The onset of such serious maladies is fortuitous and years of lingering in dementia might precede my demise.
A further alternative would be to seek to accelerate my post-competence demise by declining not only major medical interventions such as mechanical respirators or dialysis, but also more simplistic items like antibiotics, antiarrhythmics, and artificial nutrition and hydration. My envisioned scenario is that infection would occur early (via urinary tract, skin, or pneumonia) and that this condition, left untreated, would precipitate my death. (My advance instructions would allow palliative but not curative measures.)
Should healthcare providers, researchers, and insurers be able to engage in sex discrimination for religious reasons? HHS asked the public to weigh in on this question with regard to the ACA’s nondiscrimination provision.
The answer is no for three important reasons. First, the statute doesn’t allow additional exemptions. Not only is the text clear, but Congress also considered and rejected broader religious exemptions. Second, authorizing sex discrimination for religious reasons is bad health policy with damaging effects for women and LGBT people. Third (as I argued in separate comments with a group of law and religion scholars), granting religious exemptions here runs into constitutional limits set by the Establishment Clause.
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.
On September 3, the 10th Circuit declined to rehear en banc several challenges to the contraceptives coverage mandate filed by non-profit organizations, including Little Sisters of the Poor. As SCOTUSBlog explains, these organizations had not themselves asked for en banc review, having already moved on to SCOTUS, but the judges have the option of calling for a vote themselves, which one or more of them must have done. The vote came down 7-5 in favor of refusal, with the dissenting judges (i.e., those who wanted en banc review) issuing an explanation of their position. On this issue, I concur with the dissent. But I still don’t think the objecting non-profits should be off the hook.
When it comes to the contraceptives coverage mandate, non-profits, and now certain for-profits, are accommodated such that they may be relieved of the responsibility to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for contraceptives coverage if they notify the government or their health insurer of their objection to doing so, such that their insurer (or third party administrator of self-insured plans) can provide free contraceptives to their employees, at no cost to and without the involvement of the employer (all further explained here by Greg Lipper). However, many organizations continue to argue that the accommodation fails to relieve them of complicity in providing contraceptives against their religious beliefs. They want flat out exemption from the mandate. Continue reading →
Josh Blackman has replied to my post criticizing the Cato Institute’s amicus brief (which Josh coauthored) in support of the cert petition in the Little Sisters contraception case. My original post made two arguments: (1) if you take away the nonprofit accommodation, Hobby Lobby no longer supplies a rule of decision, because the presence of the nonprofit accommodation was what led the Court to conclude that RFRA barred the coverage requirement, and (2) if you prevent regulatory agencies from offering reasonable, tailored accommodations to their regulations, the result is bad for religious liberty.
Two brief comment on Josh’s reply.
First, on the question of agency authority to issue religious accommodations, Josh incorrectly suggests that I miss a subtelty in his argument. Josh/Cato say that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has authority to issue religious accommodations, but that it may not decide “which organizations were worthy of the exemption, and which would be burdened by the accommodation.” I address this argument in my original post: the Cato brief assumes that religious accommodations are all-or-nothing, but that is not how the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) works. RFRA details when accommodations are available and when they are not (and the Establishment Clause limits accommodations that unduly harm third parties). So an agency (HHS, or otherwise) cannot, as a practical matter, offer accommodations without determining who is eligible for that accommodation and who is not. As I said in my original post, Cato “would force agencies to choose between a bludgeon and no tools at all, even when the agency would need a scalpel to craft religious accommodations consistent with RFRA.”
Mohammad Allan was an administrative detainee in Israel, a Palestinian who had been hunger striking since June 16 to protest his indefinite incarceration. Allan’s health has been deteriorating gradually, and the latest examinations raised concerns that he suffered irreversible brain damage. The crisis in Allan’s health created a tangle for the Israeli government, since releasing Allan was feared to serve as a precedent that would encourage more hunger strikes and symbolize submission to this type of protest, whereas force-feeding him might be considered unethical-illegal torture. This dilemma has brought a head-on clash between Israeli government officials and the Israeli National Medical Association, and led to an internal split between medical professionals regarding their positions on the ethics of the controversial practice of force-feeding.
In the midst of Allan’s health deterioration, the Israeli parliament passed a new law called “Hunger Strike Damage Prevention Act” also known as the “force-feeding law”. The law allows doctors to force-feed prisoners in immediate and imminent danger of irreversible severe damage or death, with a court order. The court could allow such force-feeding after hearing the prisoner (if possible) and an ethics committee recommendation. Moreover, the forced feeding should be carried out in a dignified manner, avoiding pain and suffering for the prisoner. It was declared that physicians will not be forced to comply with force-feeding under this law if they refuse.
I’ve started writing for Forbes as a regular contributor. My first piece, Carly Fiorina Says Her Views On Vaccines Are Unremarkable; For Better Or Worse, She’s Right, analyzes GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s recent ad hoc remarks on the relative rights of parents and schools with respect to vaccinations and to some of the hyperbolic reactions to those remarks. Fiorina’s remarks are ambiguous, in ways that I discuss. But, as the title of the article suggests, and for better or worse, I think that the best interpretation of them places her stance squarely in the mainstream of current U.S. vaccination law. I end with a call for minimally charitable interpretations of others’ views, especially on contentious issues like vaccination.
On Monday Cassandra C. was sent home from the hospital. Her cancer is in remission after responding well to treatments. Many will recall that those treatments were forced on Cassandra against her wishes and those of her mother. Back in January, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a two-page order agreeing with state officials that Cassandra, at seventeen years three months, should be compelled to undergo chemotherapy to treat her Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Mr. Johnson gave the impression that a minor should never be permitted to make such a medical decision, while Dr. Caplan at least implied that his conclusion might be different if the refusal was based on religious beliefs. Then you have a commentator in The Economist who came to the exact opposite conclusion. He expressed concerns about Cassandra’s liberty and the rights of her mother to make decisions on her behalf.
Guest Post by Norman L. Cantor Professor of Law and Justice Nathan L. Jacobs Scholar Emeritus Rutgers School of Law – Newark
The first signs of my friend Gertie’s descent into dementia were mild — confusion about days of the week and memory loss about recent events. These were troubling but understandable phenomena in my then 84 year-old friend. Aging inevitably entails some cognitive decline. Over time, though, her symptoms of mental deterioration worsened — disinterest in pursuits like reading and listening to music that had once occupied and entertained her, forgetting not just long-time friends, but even her devoted husband who had died years earlier, and obsessive repetition of certain thoughts and phrases. Now 89, Gertie barely recognizes the devoted caregivers around her. She cannot recall her distant or recent past, she no longer knows who or where she is. Gertie remains physically tenacious, with no life-threatening maladies. While dependent on assistance for dressing, eating, ambulating, bathing, and toileting, Gertie may continue in her mentally detached and dysfunctional limbo for years more.
I am determined to avoid Gertie’s fate. So I am now contemplating how to respond if and when I am diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. My prime object is to avoid the precipitous mental deterioration accompanying advanced Alzheimer’s or similar dementia. My aversion is not based on prospective emotional distress and suffering. While some people in sharp mental decline may experience anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, confusion, or agitation, some, like Gertie, seem placid and indifferent to their debilitation. My aversion is grounded rather in my abhorrence of reduced mental function to a degree I deem intolerably demeaning. Such a status is unacceptable to me whether or not I would experience distress in a future demented state.
Keep in mind that I spent my work career as an academic. My personal satisfaction and self-image have flowed largely from intellectual functions like observation, reflection, and analysis. Inability to understand and process information is, for me, an intolerably undignified status. This preoccupation with future mental dysfunction reflects unwillingness to soil the lifetime image to be left with my survivors. I care mightily about posthumous recollections of my personality and I seek to shape my life trajectory (including a dying process) in a way that preserves a modicum of dignity. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
In addition to the closely-watched senate and gubernatorial candidates, 146 ballot questions were up for vote yesterday in 42 states across the nation. Below is a review of the some of the most pressing bioethics issues on the docket and the latest information on what passed according to Politico’s Ballot Tracker. Continue reading →
In the wake of another health care worker contracting Ebola, alarm bells are ringing. Last week, President Obama abruptly cancelled a campaign stop to Rhode Island to hold press conferences where he promised that federal authorities are “taking this very seriously at the highest levels of government.” Despite Obama’s assurances that the dangers associated with the disease spreading in the US are extremely low, other political camps are less convinced. Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, urged officials to close US borders to countries experiencing Ebola outbreaks, basically quarantining West Africa from travel to the United States.
In light of the hysteria surrounding Ebola and not Enterovirus, it’s worth thinking about our national response. Enterovirus has already claimed more lives in the US than Ebola. Think about this, the CDC warns that enteroviruses are highly contagious and already more than 500 patients have been diagnosed across 43 states in the past couple months. Yet, there has been no national outcry or demands to quarantine states, cities, local communities, or hospitals where patients were treated. Why?
Unlike the enterovirus, the face of Ebola is decidedly immigrant or “outsider.” It’s origins are Africa. Could these factors have contributed to Thomas Eric Duncan’s initial treatment at a Texas hospital and the inaccurate media accounts shortly following his diagnosis? Studies show how cognitive or implicit biases may have much to do with how we treat patients. Continue reading →
In response to the SCOTUS decision granting Wheaton College a preliminary injunction against having to comply with the terms of the HHS accommodation available to non-profit religious organizations who object to covering contraceptives for their employees (i.e., submitting a form to their insurance providers), the Obama Administration has announced that it will revise the terms of that accommodation. Instead of requiring objecting employers to provide the form and notice to insurers or third party administrators of self-insured health plans so that they can jump in to provide free coverage directly to employees, HHS will issue new regulations in short order, the details of which remain to be worked out, but will likely allow nonprofit institutions to write a letter stating their objections, rather than filling out the form (see the WSJ story here). This will leave the government to make sure employees are not left without contraceptives coverage.
I may be oversimplifying things, but I think this extended accommodation really isn’t such a big deal. It seems to just add the government in as a middleman between the objecting employer and the insurer or third party administrator that was responsible for providing coverage under the original accommodation. In other words, before, nonprofit religious employers with an objection had to fill out the form and give it directly to their insurers; after the modification, those employers could just let the government know, and presumably the government will notify their insurers. A bit more bureaucracy, but shouldn’t be too big of a problem – probably just a drop in the bucket of the massive ACA bureaucracy, and potentially unnoticeable by the women seeking free contraceptives. That is unless the employers claim that even this approach leaves them complicit in violation of their religious beliefs.
Since SCOTUS’s substantial burden test as applied in Hobby Lobby focused on the hefty fines for noncompliance, rather than the extent to which the employers’ religious beliefs were directly v. indirectly burdened, the complicity point is an important one to keep an eye on. Will religious employers be satisfied with simply adding another link to the causal chain? Perhaps (and I hope). Technically, all they would be asked to do is announce to the world that they have a religious objection. What the government does with that information is beyond their control. If this works out, the revised accommodation could also be extended to the closely held for-profit corporations with religious objections to contraceptives coverage that SCOTUS determined could not be forced to comply with the mandate, such that their employees too could retain access.
So let’s see what HHS can come up with. Haters gonna hate, as they say, so I’m sure there will be more litigation on this, but hopefully we’re nearing a solution – and I think a good compromise. The bigger issue will be dealing with all those other services that must be included as essential benefits or preventive services to which religious employers may object, and to which insurers are likely to object to providing free coverage. But let’s see if the ACA lives to die another day after Halbig and King.