Bishops Reject Contraception Compromise

By Elizabeth Sepper

It comes as no surprise that tonight the Catholic bishops rejected the White House’s attempts to bend over backward to accommodate religious objections to contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans. The administration’s rules first exempted religious groups. Now the proposed rules allow an even wider array of religiously affiliated employers—including hospitals, insurance companies, social service providers, and universities—to have insurance plans without any coverage of contraception, while making sure their employees can access it. Yet, the bishops are not satisfied.

In court, religiously affiliated employers insist that their concern is religious freedom. But the bishops’ reaction to the administration’s generous proposal suggests they don’t want liberty from the mandate. They want to end it altogether. The general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Anthony Picarello admitted as much just last year, saying that they would not accept any fix that did not remove contraceptive coverage from the Affordable Care Act altogether. Otherwise, “if I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said. (For a list of for-profit companies challenging the contraceptive coverage mandate, see here (no Taco Bells just yet))

I’d hoped, as E.J. Dionne did, that the Church would accept the Obama administration’s olive branch. But it seems 2013 will be another big year for conscience and contraception.

Thanks to Holly for inviting me to blog for January (I’ve overstayed my welcome!). I very much enjoyed it.

Defending Roe v. Wade, Defending Human Rights

By Elizabeth Sepper

Dr. Willie Parker is one of the few doctors in the United States who perform later-term abortions, up to 24 weeks.  He is one of three who provide abortions at Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic.  A Christian from the Deep South, Dr. Parker didn’t provide abortions for the first dozen years of his career.  But again and again he encountered women whose pregnancies endangered their lives, girls who had suffered rape or incest, and mothers who were too poor to raise another child.  He came to wrestle with the morality of abortion—torn between his religious tradition’s teaching against abortion and his moral commitment to his patients.  He listened to Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon on the Good Samaritan.  According to Dr. King, the Good Samaritan was “good” because he did not consider himself but instead asked “What will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help him?”  Dr. Parker was moved to examine his own conscience and to ask, “What happens to women who seek abortion if I don’t serve them?”  From that day, he began to perform abortions. (This interview is well worth a read.)

Choosing to provide abortions is an act of bravery. Abortion providers face threats to their safety and families, targeted and expensive regulations, and professional and community stigma.  They share much in common with human rights lawyers, union organizers, and women’s rights advocates around the globe who are harassed by their governments and the majority.  This makes sense if we recognize abortion providers for what they are: human rights defenders, who work to ensure reproductive rights (the Center for Reproductive Rights has argued effectively for this framework under international law).

As we mark the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade tomorrow, we should acknowledge the courage and commitment of these human rights defenders.  In the past two years, state legislatures passed more, and more novel, restrictions on women’s access to abortion and abortion providers’ practices than ever before.  The “graying” of current  providers represents a further challenge.  In the words of Justice Blackmun, “I fear for the future.  I fear for the liberty and equality of the millions of women who have lived and come of age in the . . . years since Roe was decided.”  But tomorrow I simply offer thanks to those who defend our rights on the front lines.

Flu Vaccine Myths and Healthcare Providers

By Elizabeth Sepper

2013 is rife with reports of the terrible human costs of the flu.  Emergency rooms nationwide have been overwhelmed.  Art Caplan’s great blog post urges doctors to educate patients that the flu vaccine is not just for their benefit.  He tells healthcare providers to send a clear message by getting the flu shot themselves.  But what should we do when they refuse?

Flu vaccination of healthcare providers has come a long way.  Before 2009, rates never broke 49%.  Today, almost two-thirds of healthcare providers are vaccinated.

Still, one-third of healthcare providers do not protect themselves, their patients, and the public from influenza.  We remain far short of the national Health People 2020 target of 90%. Do these providers have religious beliefs that raise tricky constitutional and statutory questions?  Do they assert deeply held philosophical objections?  Media accounts suggest so.  We hear of the vegan customer service representative who refuses the flu vaccine because it is grown in chicken eggs, and the religious holistic nurse who objects both to vaccination and to wearing a mask.

But the main reason for going unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is that healthcare providers simply did not want to get vaccinated. Other common reasons: they think flu vaccines don’t work, fear experiencing side effects, or don’t think they will need the vaccine.  Some reasons do not reflect the evidence. Others suggest, as Art Caplan puts it that healthcare staff need to “stop thinking only about themselves.” Continue reading

Genetic Testing as Social Networking

By Elizabeth Sepper

In the market for discount genetic testing?  Want to share your genetic markers with friends?  No?  You might soon be alone.

Last week, I got an email from the mega-discounter Groupon advertising 68% off a “DNA Self-Discovery Kit.”  The company, ConnectMyDNA, allows Groupon users to send in a cheek swab and receive back information on their genetic markers and how those markers compare to people around the world (what they call a “Gene RingTM”).

The big selling point:  sharing results with friends on social media and making new connections to people with similar genetic markers.  ConnectMyDNA’s website says, “You can use your Gene Ring™ as your personal badge anywhere you’d like—on your business card, email signature, or you can even create a cool T-shirt!”

This all seems fairly harmless.  But I wonder if sharing genetic information will represent the next step in the race to the bottom of privacy expectations.  People already regularly disclose extensive medical information related to illness, recovery, and injury on Caringbridge, Facebook, and public blogs.  As genetic tests come down in price and become more commercially available, will genetic information be next?  How will law and ethics respond to protect family members who share genetic information or shield those predisposed to disease from discrimination in this context?  Today, genetic screening raises ethical issues and contention among family members at risk, for instance, for hereditary breast or ovarian cancer.  Tomorrow, sharing one’s genome with Facebook friends, twitter users, and the public may be the norm.

Who Pays? The Wage-Insurance Trade-off and Corporate Religious Freedom Claims

By Elizabeth Sepper

Happy new year to all and thanks to the Bill of Health for the opportunity to blog this month!

The first day of 2013 saw yet another ruling in the contraception coverage controversy.  And yet another private corporation—this time a real estate management company owned by the billionaire founder of Domino’s pizza—won a temporary injunction against the mandate on religious freedom grounds.  The company’s claim boils down to this:  the Affordable Care Act forces it to pay, through its insurance plan, for healthcare (in this case contraception) to which it objects as a matter of religion.  Let’s bracket, for the moment, the question of whether an artificial entity can have religious beliefs, let alone a conscience, and ask “what wrong with this argument?”

At heart, it misses a basic fact of health economics:  health insurance, like wages, is compensation that belongs to the employee.  Study after study shows that employers pay in wages whatever they don’t pay in health insurance premiums.  Most recently, a study of Massachusetts’ health reform found that firms offering health insurance pay wages lower by an average of $6,058 (nearly exactly the cost of annual health insurance premiums).  Each employee’s actual “salary” is wages plus the employer share of the health insurance premium.  So, when a corporation purchases a health insurance plan that its employees (and their family members) may or may not use to buy contraception, it is no more paying for contraception than it does when employees use their wages to buy it.

Unfortunately, this basic fact about employer-sponsored insurance is invisible to the public.  Employees are ignorant of the effects of insurance on wages and see insurance as a gesture of goodwill with employers reaping the benefits.  This year for the first time, W-2s must list the total annual premium paid toward health insurance (thanks to the Affordable Care Act).  It’s a first step.  But I suspect that it will do little to change our societal perception of employer-sponsored insurance.  In the litigation over contraceptive coverage, I fear that courts may continue to overlook the fact that insurance (and the healthcare it buys) is paid for by employees, not employers.  If so, the courts will only open the door to future challenges to employees’ healthcare decisions, whether paid for with insurance or wages.