Negligent Failure to Prevent Suicide in the Age of Facebook Live

In 2016, Facebook unveiled a new tool that allows users to post live streams of video directly from their phones to the social media platform. This feature — known as “Facebook Live” — allows friends and followers to watch a user’s videos  as she films them. Originally conceptualized as a means of sharing experiences like concerts or vacations in real time, the platform was quickly adopted for uses Facebook likely didn’t see coming. In 2016, Lavish Reynolds used Facebook Live to document the killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, by the Minneapolis police, sparking a national debate surrounding police brutality and racial disparities in law enforcement. Recently, another use for Facebook Live has arisen — one that Facebook neither foresaw nor wants: people have been using Facebook Live as a means of broadcasting their suicides.

This tragic adaptation of the Facebook Live feature has put Facebook in a tough spot. It wants to prevent the suicides its platform is being used to document — and just a few weeks ago it rolled out real-time tools viewers of Live videos can use to identify and reach out to possible suicide victims while they’re filming — but it’s often too late by the time the video feed is live. Accordingly, Facebook is focusing its efforts at identifying those at risk of suicide before the situation becomes emergent. It currently has teams designing artificial intelligence algorithms for identifying users who may be at risk for suicide. These tools would scan Facebook users’ content, flagging individuals that have warning signs of self-harm or suicide in their posts.

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The Balancing Act Between Mental Illness and Gun Rights

Editor’s Note: This is an update of the post “Second Amendment Rights and Mental Illness,” originally published on September 1, 2015. 

By Mariam Ahmed, JD/MSPP

In September 2015, we offered a glimpse of the current landscape of laws addressing mental health and gun violence. Many of the laws addressed public safety concerns that arose from active shooters with mental illnesses. At both the state and federal levels, government officials continue to debate the relationship between gun violence and mental health issues. Questions of safety and stigma continue to be asked, and are leading to changes in the laws. Here’s where we stand now:

In July 2015, Congress introduced the Safer Communities Act of 2015, but after being passed around four different committees, it was never released to the House floor for a vote. If the bill had passed, it would have further clarified who is restricted from possessing a gun based on their mental health and treatment.

After the bill died in committee, agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) have passed regulations to further define reporting and restriction requirements for people with mental illnesses. On January 4, 2016, HHS finalized a rule that modified the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). The modification allows HIPAA-covered entities to release personal information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) if the person has a “mental health prohibitor” on their record that limits ability to possess, transport, receive, or ship a firearm under federal law. The rule went into effect on February 5, 2016. Continue reading

Epistemic Injustice, Procedural Fairness, and the Real Weight of Medical Evidence

By Wendy S. Salkin

March 6, 2017

In his lucid and fascinating February 2017 article in the AMA Journal of Ethics, “What is the Relevance of Procedural Fairness to Making Determinations about Medical Evidence?,” Govind Persad, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the Bloomberg School of Public Health and in the Berman Institute of Bioethics, considers the following questions: How can fair procedures “help address epistemological and factual questions in medicine”?[1]

As Persad sees it, dilemmas in medical ethics and health policy often involve two questions. One is a factual or descriptive question concerning “which benefits an intervention will have.” (183) The other is an ethical question concerning “how to distribute those benefits.” (183) Persad provides the following example to tease out the distinction:

determining who should receive priority for scarce vaccines in a pandemic involves answering two questions: the descriptive (factual) question of which benefits these vaccines are expected to have for their recipients and the normative (value) question of how those prospective benefits should be distributed. (183)

Persad is interested in considering how fair procedures can be used to address questions of the first sort—the “epistemological and factual questions in medicine.” (183) He sets for himself the following task: to “consider how fair procedures have been and can be used to develop and weigh factual evidence in medicine.” (184) Persad foresees an increase in both the significance and frequency of “debates over the validity and weight of medical evidence” as the amount of medical evidence that is both required and amassed increases. He foresees an acceleration in this trend, which he credits to

the expansion of clinical data collection and analysis; the growing relevance of scientific evidence to medical practice…; and the use of evidence to support payment and insurance coverage decisions that have financial implications for patients and providers. (184)

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Well-rested versus well-trained doctors: New twist in debate over resident duty hours (Part II)

When people fall acutely ill, they deserve a non-sleep deprived doctor—but they also deserve an adequately-trained doctor. There are only so many hours to the day, and so in medical education a resident’s need for self-care must be balanced against the need for maximum clinical exposure. Since 2003, when restrictions to resident duty hours were first enacted, there has been disagreement about how to best navigate the tension. Recently, the debate resurfaced when the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) proposed a change to the policy governing resident duty hour limits. Perhaps the most surprising part of the announcement was that their proposal increased the time limit that interns (first year residents) can care for patients without sleep. The policy ACGME enacted in 2011 had capped interns at 16 hours on-call, and the proposal increases the limit to 28 hours.

In my prior post I raised arguments for and against the proposed changes to duty hour limits. Here I will unpack the conclusions and limitations of the best empirical evidence available to ACGME: the Flexibility in Duty Hour Requirements for Surgical Trainees (FIRST) Trial. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 2016, the FIRST Trial randomized 117 surgical residency programs nationwide to have either “standard” duty hour policies, which included the current 16-hour cap on interns, or “flexible” policies, which reflect the recent ACGME proposal. Data were collected from July 2014 to June 2105. The sister-study involving medical residencies nationwide has regrettably not yet published.

The FIRST Trial warrant close attention because, like a Rorschach test, different people see different things in the data. For instance, take the finding that neither group caused significantly more or less harm to patients, though shorter duty hours were associated with more handoffs of patient responsibility. Taken at face value, these results neither clearly bolster nor contradict the proposed duty hour changes; yet they are used to both support and undermine the tentative changes to ACGME policy. The study’s first author told NPR that, “We believe the trial results say it’s safe to provide some flexibility in duty hours.” On the other hand, an editorial published in NEJM alongside the study argues that, “The FIRST Trial effectively debunks concerns that patients will suffer as a result of increased handoffs and breaks in the continuity of care.” Is there a right conclusion to draw from the study? Continue reading

American Psychiatric Association Releases Formal Position Statement on Euthanasia

By Wendy S. Salkin

End of Life Care, NIH

Image Source: NIH Consensus Development Project

Last month, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released a position statement on medical euthanasia. The statement, approved by the APA Assembly in November and approved by the Board of Trustees in December, states:

The American Psychiatric Association, in concert with the American Medical Association’s position on medical euthanasia, holds that a psychiatrist should not prescribe or administer any intervention to a non-terminally ill person for the purpose of causing death.

According to the APA Operations Manual, APA position statements “provide the basis for statements made on behalf of the APA before government bodies and agencies and communicated to the media and the general public.”

For those who are wondering, What’s the American Medical Association’s [AMA] position on medical euthanasia?, here is your answer: From Section 8 of Chapter 5 (“Opinions on Caring for Patients at the End of Life”) of the AMA Code of Ethics: Continue reading

LIVE ONLINE TODAY @ NOON: President-Elect Trump’s Health Policy Agenda: Priorities, Strategies, and Predictions

trump_ryan_pence_header

Webinar: President-Elect Trump’s Health Policy Agenda: Priorities, Strategies, and Predictions

Monday, December 19, 2016, 12:00 – 1:00pm

WATCH LIVE ONLINE!: http://petrieflom.law.harvard.edu/events/details/president-elect-trumps-health-policy-agenda

Submit your questions to the panelists via Twitter @PetrieFlom.

Please join the Petrie-Flom Center for a live webinar to address what health care reform may look like under the new administration. Expert panelists will address the future of the Affordable Care Act under a “repeal and replace” strategy, alternative approaches to insurance coverage and access to care, the problem of high drug prices, innovation policy, support for scientific research, and other topics. The panel will discuss opportunities and obstacles relevant to President-elect Trump’s proposals, as well as hopes and concerns for health policy over the next four years. Webinar participants will have the opportunity to submit questions to the panelists for discussion.

Panelists

  • Joseph R. Antos, Wilson H. Taylor Scholar in Health Care and Retirement Policy, American Enterprise Institute
  • Lanhee J. Chen, David and Diane Steffy Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; Director of Domestic Policy Studies and Lecturer, Public Policy Program; affiliate, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University
  • Douglas Holtz-Eakin, President, American Action Forum
  • Moderator:Gregory Curfman, Editor-in-Chief, Harvard Health Publications

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The Newest 21st Century Cures Draft Moderates, But Doesn’t Eliminate, Controversy

Earlier this evening, the House of Representatives released the most recent draft of the 21st Century Cures Act. This is the fifth time I’ve blogged about the Act (prior posts here, here, here, and here), which has ballooned from a 200-page discussion draft in April 2015 to a 996-page draft version today. (The House has a 44-page summary here for those with more limited time.) To be fair, the Act now contains a whole set of provisions around mental health, substance abuse, and child and family services which were not originally part of the Act. The 21st Century Cures Act is the biggest Christmas tree bill I’ve ever had occasion to read.

There will be an enormous amount of commentary on different parts of the bill, so here are some quick thoughts on the new draft, focusing not only on the provisions which are likely to attract the most attention, but also on a few quieter provisions that are nonetheless worthy of scrutiny.

Some controversial provisions have been eliminated entirely or softened greatly. One of the most controversial provisions in the last draft of the bill would’ve “farm[ed] out the certification of safety of modified devices to third parties, circumventing the FDA altogether.” That provision seems to be absent from the new draft. The last draft, in creating a program for breakthrough review of medical devices, controversially called for the use of “shorter or smaller clinical trials” for those devices. The new draft asks the Secretary only to ensure that the design of such clinical trials is “as efficient and flexible as practicable, when scientifically appropriate” (section 3051).

Other controversial provisions remain, sometimes under new names. One of the most troubling provisions in the previous draft of the bill would’ve created a program for the use of “clinical experience” evidence in drug approvals. Rather than relying on the gold standard of randomized clinical trials, this provision “would[‘ve] require the Secretary to establish a draft framework for implementing” such evidence. The new draft keeps this provision but changes the term “clinical experience” to “real world evidence” (section 3022). To be sure, this provision gives enormous discretion to the Secretary to limit (and maybe even reject) the use of such evidence. But in light of recent high-profile clinical trial failures, most notably just two days ago, we ought to be concerned about claims that the FDA is too slow and imposes too stringent requirements on drug approvals.

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The Competing Identities of Neuroethics

By Brad Segal

This past week week I attended the International Neuroethics Society’s (INS) annual conference in San Diego, California. Neuroethics is multidisciplinary field that grapples with the implications of neuroscience for—and from—medicine, law, philosophy, and the social sciences. One of the many excellent panels brought together scholars from each of these four disciplines to discuss the diverse approaches to the field. The panel featured; Paul Appelbaum, a Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University; Tom Buller, Chair of philosophy at Illinois State University; Jennifer Chandler, Professor of law at the University of Ottawa, and; Ilina Singh, Professor of Neuroscience & Society at the University of Oxford.

The panel started by considering the importance of the “competing identities” present in the field of neuroethics. As moderator Eric Racine explained, right from the start, even the term ‘neuroethics’ suggests a tension. Consider the variety of research methodologies employed in the field. For instance, a scholar trained in philosophy might approach neuroscience from a conceptual and purely analytical basis, and yet a social scientist might research the same question by collecting empirical interview data. The interplay between empirical and theoretical work was a theme that defined the discussion.

A psychiatrist by training, Dr. Applebaum spoke on the medical approach to the field. He argued that a focus on ethical issues in clinical psychiatry and neurology should be viewed as a part (but only a part) of neuroethics. Furthermore, medicine’s empirical approach to neuroethics is one (but not the only) way to advance thinking on neuroethical issues. Continue reading

MONDAY (10/24): Health Care after the Election

presidential_nominees_slideHealth Care after the Election
October 24, 2016 12:00 PM
Wasserstein Hall, Milstein West AB (2019)
Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA

Description

As we approach the 2016 presidential election and change of administration, there are many questions about the future of health policy that the 45th President and Congress will have to address starting in 2017. This event brings together health care experts from both sides of the aisle to discuss what health care will – and should – look like under the next administration.

Possible topics for discussion include:

  • The Affordable Care Act
  • Drug pricing
  • Delivery system reform
  • Innovation and research funding/NIH
  • Mental health
  • Public health

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Voluntary Firearm Waiting Periods Could Save Thousands of Lives

By Shailin Thomas

Suicide is one of today’s most pressing public health issues. It’s the second most common cause of death for those ages 15-34, and claims over 40,000 lives every year. Of those, a staggering 20,000 are the result of firearms. To put that in perspective, there are about 30,000 gun deaths overall in the United States each year, which means that self-inflicted fatalities make up over 60% of total domestic gun deaths. Of the most prevalent means of attempting suicide, firearms are by far the most lethal. Firearm suicide attempts end in death more than 85% of the time, whereas attempts by drug overdose — the most common method — are only fatal 3% of the time.

While suicides by firearm have been on the rise in recent years, there may be an easy way to substantially reduce their incidence. A new study out of the University of Alabama Birmingham by Vars, et al., suggests that allowing individuals at risk of suicide to put themselves on a voluntary “Do-Not-Sell’ list, which would result in a waiting period before they could acquire a firearm, could be effective in preventing suicide attempts. The researchers surveyed 200 patients at both in- and out-patient psychiatric facilities who had disorders associated with anxiety and depression, and found that nearly half of them would put themselves on a list which would preclude them from quickly accessing firearms in the event that they were contemplating suicide. This is particularly notable given that these were all Alabama residents — a state that ranks in the top 10 of Guns and Ammo’s list of the best states for gun owners. In other states with more robust gun control and fewer gun enthusiasts, the Do-Not-Sell rate could very well be higher.

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Loneliness as epidemic

By Wendy S. Salkin

Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article confirming that, indeed, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness. There is “mounting evidence” that links loneliness to illness, as well as “functional and cognitive decline.” What’s more, loneliness turns out to be a better predictor of early death than obesity.

Neuroscientist John Cacioppo, who has spent much of his career working on loneliness, defines “loneliness” as “perceived social isolation.” Similarly, Masi, et al. (following Russell, et al. 1980) define “loneliness” as “the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships.” As Masi, et al., point out, there is a distinction to be made between loneliness, on the one hand, and social isolation, on the other, although the two phenomena may indeed often go together. Whereas social isolation “reflects an objective measure of social interactions and relationships,” loneliness “reflects perceived social isolation or outcast.” Following Peplau & Perlman 1982 and Wheeler, et al. 1983, they go on to point out that “loneliness is more closely associated with the quality than the number of relationships.” (It’s important and timely to note that the 2016 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, brought out one application of this conceptual distinction in his song, “Marchin’ to the City,” when he sang: “Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone.”)

The health risks posed by loneliness are several and can be severe. Loneliness can contribute to increased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. In a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis in Heart, Valtorta, et al., reported that “poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD [coronary heart disease] and a 32% increase in risk of stroke.” And in a March 2015 meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Holt-Lunstad, et al., reported that a substantial body of evidence supports the following two claims:

  1. Loneliness puts one at greater risk for premature mortality. In particular, “the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.”
  2. The heightened risk for mortality due to “a lack of social relationships” (whether reported loneliness, social isolation, or living alone) is greater than the risk due to obesity.

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Mental Health First Aid Training in Prisons, Police Departments, and the Presidential Election

By Wendy S. Salkin

It has been widely reported and acknowledged that many incarcerated Americans live with mental illness. In 2014, the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association published The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey, a joint report that included the following findings:

  • In 2012, there were estimated to be 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails. There were also approximately 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals. Thus, the number of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails was 10 times the number remaining in state hospitals.
  • In 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, a prison or jail in that state holds more individuals with serious mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital. For example, in Ohio, 10 state prisons and two county jails each hold more mentally ill inmates than does the largest remaining state hospital.

Similarly widely reported and acknowledged is that prisons often either cannot or simply do not serve the mental health treatment needs of those housed within their walls. As Ana Swanson of The Washington Post observed:

Unsurprisingly, many prisons are poorly equipped to properly deal with mental illness. Inmates with mental illnesses are more likely than other to be held in solitary confinement, and many are raped, commit suicide, or hurt themselves.

Solitary confinement is often used as a means of separating inmates living with mental illness from the rest of a prison population. As Jeffrey L. Metzner and Jamie Fellner reported in their March 2010 article, “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for Medical Ethics”: Continue reading

The School To Prison Pipeline Undermines the Dignity of Children and Also Society

Madisyn Moore

Madisyn Moore, handcuffed at school and left for an hour unattended.  Her mother is now suing.

Co-authored with Eliana Grossman.

By all accounts the U.S. drug war has failed: more drugs are sold on black markets, streets, and in alleys than before, trillions of dollars have been spent, and millions of non-violent offenders are now locked away.  Some men and women will be incarcerated for the rest of their lives for non-violent drug crimes.

However, in wake of the drug war and robust mass incarceration, the pattern of policing has trickled down to children.  The “school to prison pipeline” is more than a euphemism.  It describes zero tolerance policies, subjective discipline, suspensions, and expulsions.  Most disturbingly, it describes a process that starts for some kids as young as five and six years old.

In our recent Huffington Post article, we describe how Madisyn Moore, a six year old, African American, was handcuffed behind a dark stairwell for more than an hour by a school guard who mistakenly believed the little girl stole a piece of candy.  In defending his actions, the guard claimed, “‘I’m teaching her a f — -g lesson. She took a piece of candy and I handcuffed her under the stairs.’”  It turns out the Madisyn’s mother packed the treat for her daughter.  The guard was later fired, but the trauma Madisyn experienced will likely last for a long time. Continue reading

New Federal Employee Drug Screening Guidelines to Include Opioid Testing

By Jonathan K. Larsen, JD, MPP

There is no denying that the United States is experiencing an opioid overdose epidemic. Drug overdose deaths generally in the United States have been associated, at least in part, with increasing mortality rates among white non-Hispanics, which is counter to trends in other wealthy nations. The Urban Institute’s Laudan Aron recently posted about the underlying causes of our current epidemic, paying special attention to aggressive marketing of painkillers, the related spike in opioid prescriptions, and the closely correlated increase in opioid abuse. The issue has even made it into the current Presidential campaign, however briefly. President Obama has sought increased funding to address the issue, as well as a focused private, state, and local effort to tackle prescription drug abuse. While opioid abuse has been on the rise, it is not typically part of employee drug testing, when employers choose or are required to test. This may be changing.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the federal agency responsible for drug testing standards for federal agencies, is poised to release drug screening guidelines (see page 4 (28104 in the Federal Register) that would expand drug screening for opioid abuse to federal employees, and could influence employee drug testing policies across the nation. The US Department of Defense has been testing for hydrocodone and benzodiazepines (used to treat anxiety and seizures among other things) since May 1, 2012. SAMHSA cites sobering statistics about opioid-related deaths now outnumbering deaths from illicit drugs, as it prepares to test for oxycodone, oxymorphone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone, all classified as Schedule II drugs, or drugs with high risk of abuse, by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The proposed guidelines were released May 15, 2015, so the final rules should be coming soon. Continue reading

Short-Term Emergency Commitment Laws and their Impact on Firearm Possession Rights

By Andrew T. Campbell, Esq.

The Policy Surveillance Program recently updated its dataset analyzing state laws governing the short-term emergency commitment process. This dataset includes state laws that limit an individual’s right to possess a firearm following short-term emergency commitment. This aspect of the law captured by the dataset is particularly relevant given the unfortunate rise in mass shootings throughout the United States in recent years, with the latest shooting occurring in Kalamazoo, Michigan on February 21 (see also Deadliest U.S. mass shootings – 1984-2015 from the Los Angeles Times). These mass shooting tragedies have spurred debate and legislative action on gun control, to which issues of mental health have become inextricably intertwined despite research that indicates that mental illness is only a small factor in violence (see for example Mental health legislation complicated by gun control debate from The Washington Post; and Debate over gun control, mental health starts anew from CBS News). Additionally, on January 5, 2016, President Obama announced an executive action to battle gun violence, which includes a $500 million investment toward increasing access to mental health care.

With respect to the legal landscape, federal law restricts the sale of firearms to individuals who have been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or “committed to any mental institution.” Committed to a mental institution in this instance encompasses long-term involuntary commitments, but does not include those admitted for observation, i.e., short-term emergency commitment. Some states, however, have gone further and have enacted more extensive legislation that limits the right to possess a firearm for individuals who have been subject to short-term emergency commitment. With short-term emergency commitment, law enforcement officers and certain other individuals have the right to involuntarily admit individuals to a mental health care facility for a short period of time if they are displaying symptoms of a mental illness and pose a danger to themselves or others. Continue reading

What is the IMD Exclusion that everyone is talking about?

By Emma Sandoe

A less covered provision of Medicaid law that has been in existence since the establishment of the program in 1965 and has been making some news over the past several months, the IMD exclusion is a provision that restricts Medicaid payments for certain institutions, potentially reducing the access to available services for low-income individuals with mental illnesses. If you haven’t been hearing everyone talking about it… well, I guess you talk with fewer health policy nerds than I do.

What is the IMD exclusion?

According to the good people at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the IMD exclusion can be defined as: Institutions for Mental Disease (IMDs) are inpatient facilities of more than 16 beds whose patient roster is more than 51% people with severe mental illness. Federal Medicaid matching payments are prohibited for IMDs with a population between the ages of 22 and 64. IMDs for persons under age 22 or over age 64 are permitted, at state option, to draw federal Medicaid matching funds.

Why does Medicaid have this provision?

This is because when Medicaid first started, states were responsible for the care of people with severe mental illness. States cared for many people with mental illnesses in a custodial setting; essentially states often were providing people a place to sleep but no mental health services. When drafting the Medicaid bill, the federal government did not want to supplant this existing state program with federal Medicaid funding. Additionally, while President Johnson was notorious for not spending a large amount of time on the cost of Medicare, the addition of these services would add $1.8 billion to the Medicaid budget, nearly doubling the first year price tag.

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Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration: A Hidden Problem

Goodwin-Headshot11Mass incarceration’s invisible casualties are women and children.  Too often, they are the forgotten in a tragic American tale that distinguishes the United States from all peer nations.  Simply put, the U.S. incarcerates more of its population than anywhere else in the world–and by staggering contrast.  While the U.S. locks away over 700 men and women for every 100,000, here are comparable figures from our peer nations:  England (153 in 100,000), France (96 in 100,000), Germany (85 in 100,000), Italy (111 in 100,000), and Spain (159, in 100,000).  The U.S. accounts for less than 5% of the globes population, yet locks away nearly 25%.  Sadly, this has grave social, medical, psychological, and economic consequences.

Congressional Briefing on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration

In a recent essay, published in the Texas Law Review, I explained that, the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007—nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. More conservative estimates suggest that the rate of incarceration of women grew by over 750% during the past three decades. This staggering increase now results in more than one million incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S. The Bureau of Justice Statistics underscores the problem, explaining in a “Special Report” that “[s]ince 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%,” while “[t]he number of children with a father in prison has grown [only] by 77%.” Continue reading

Humanizing Pain: Advocacy, Policy and Law on Abortion, Execution and Juvenile Life Without Parole

By Robert Kinscherff

I recently attended a presentation on Fetal Pain: An Update on the Science and Legal Implications, jointly sponsored by the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (Massachusetts General Hospital) and the Petrie-Flom Center (Harvard Law School).  Presenters were Amanda Pustilnik, JD (University of Maryland School of Law) and Maureen Strafford, MD (Tufts University School of Medicine). Video of the event is available on the website, and I encourage everyone to watch the full discussion for themselves.

Doctor Strafford delivered a masterful overview of the trajectory of scientific perspective and research about children and pain.  Over the course of her career, the medical perspective has transformed from “children do not feel pain” to “children do not remember pain” to inquiry into “when and how children feel pain.” Strafford described the medical complexities of understanding the physical and subjective aspects of pain as well as the impossibility of confidently “pinpointing” the exact point in fetal development when a neonate experiences pain.

Professor Pustilnik gave an equally compelling review of law and legal language regarding abortion, particularly law that specifically references fetal pain as a reason for limiting abortion.   This served to frame a conversation about pain and suffering in the law and the ways in which law reflects normative considerations and provides rhetoric (viewed respectively by partisans as “compelling” or “inflammatory”) to political discourse. In this case, discourse about fetal pain both attracts attention and is intended to facilitate empathy for the neonate. Continue reading

Public Safety and Public Health

This morning I saw an announcement about a new initiative called “Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration” and thought it was an important thing to share on this blog. This alliance consists of 120 top current/former police commissioners and prosecutors, including both district attorneys and state attorneys general. These law enforcement leaders have come together to influence legislation and public opinion around mass incarceration. Their first project: supporting the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, a bipartisan bill currently moving through the Senate. This issue matters because there are currently over 2.2 million people in American prisons and jails.

The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation on earth, and by a disturbing margin: we have just 5 percent of the world’s population, but 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. What’s more, our prison population has grown by over 500 percent since 1978. At any given moment, one in 35 Americans is in prison, on parole, or on probation.

Why is criminal justice a health policy issue? Well, there are many reasons, but let’s start with the fact that the largest mental health provider in the United States is the Cook County Jail. This does not reflect well on our criminal justice policy or our health policy.

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What’s the Difference Between Anorexia Nervosa and Hunger Strike?

My last post presented the debate over force feeding hunger striking prisoners in Israel. This post will discuss another group subjected to the dramatic means of force feeding in extreme circumstances, Anorexia Nervosa patients (AN).

Although ethical justifications for force-feeding are similar for both Anorexics and Hunger strikers (save life), the legal framework is completely different in each context. Whereas hunger striking prisoners were dealt with via ad-hoc legislation meant to answer national security threats, AN patients are handled within the framework of mental health law.  In the U.S., compulsory hospitalization of mental patients occurs through the state’s Civil Commitment Laws, which require dangerousness resulting from a mental illness to be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

Is the different legal attitude justified? How is it that the same act performed by prisoners is viewed as a political assertion but when done predominantly by adolescent middle-upper class girls, it is considered mental illness?

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