Admissions and Mental Health

By Nathaniel Counts

In our legal system, colleges may not make admissions decisions in order to ameliorate historical (or presumably other) inequalities, but may make decisions that take into account the particular situation of the applicant or that strive to create a diverse student body.  Justice Powell rejected the former two goals in Part IV of his Bakke opinion, which went uncontradicted in the Grutter opinion that followed it and, most recently, the Fisher opinion almost exclusively focused on the diversity justification.  Whether or not it appears in court opinions however, the issue of transformative justice is very much at stake – colleges, as the gatekeeper to many of the high honors and offices of our society, can control the distribution of a set of goods to the rising generation and decide how equally they are distributed among certain groups.  Here we will imagine that transformative justice is indeed the goal of affirmative action.

Colleges have two tools by which they can currently select among students based on disadvantage (historical or otherwise).  First, there is the demographic and socioeconomic information disclosed in the application.  Although these questions are optional, for those students who answer the questions, schools may use these answers as signals for disadvantage and take this into account.  Second, there is the essay questions, which frequently ask about an instance in which the applicant overcame adversity.  Here the applicant can demonstrate the degree of disadvantage experienced or explain some more nuanced disadvantage not revealed in the first part.

These two tools are far from perfect, but let us take our imagining further and envision a world in which colleges could accurately determine disadvantage.  If it decides to take on the latter, mental health may pose an insurmountable problem – individuals with intellectual disabilities may not be able to thrive in the setting offered by the institutions that select them.

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A Case Against the “Noncompliant” Patient

By Deborah Cho

In recent years, providers have attempted to shift how health care is delivered so as to include the patient in the decision-making process.  This concept of shared decision-making was most memorably relayed to me in medical school through a critical lesson during which we were instructed to replace the word “noncompliant” with “non-adherent” when describing patients who were unwilling or unable to stick with treatment regimens.    Noncompliance painted a picture of a paternalistic provider mandating the rules of play, while the patient cowered below as a disobedient subordinate.  It also implied that the patient did something wrong by breaking the rules and that the actions of the patient ought to be modified to fit the rules, rather than the other way around.  On the other hand, non-adherence signified that the patient was a contributing partner in the development of the treatment plan and, further, that he may be justified for not abiding by the terms of his plan.

There were two overarching reasons for the shift to the shared decision-making model: first, that this would produce better overall clinical results and second, that this view shows more respect for patient autonomy.  Providers were learning and accepting that treatment plans prescribed within their vacuums could fail to be affordable, intelligible, or even realistic given a patient’s life circumstances.

So how does this relate to law students and lawyers?

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TOMORROW: Evaluating the Revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)

Evaluating the Revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 12:00pm

Wasserstein Hall 3018, Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

The DSM is the reference used by clinicians, researchers, and insurers to diagnose and classify mental disorders, with the intent to provide specific, objective criteria by which to assess symptoms and determine whether to pay for treatment.  The American Psychiatric Association released the manual’s fifth edition in May 2013, nearly twenty years after the fourth edition, to substantial public and professional criticism.  Please join us for a discussion of the new revisions and their implications for patients, medical practice, research, and the law.

Panelists:

  • Steven E. Hyman, Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology
  • Anne Becker, Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Global Health and Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • Nita Farahany, Professor of Law, Professor of Genome Sciences & Policy, and Professor of Philosophy at Duke University
  • Moderator: I. Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Faculty Co-Director, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided. For questions, contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

This event is supported by the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

3/11: Evaluating the Revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)

Evaluating the Revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 12:00pm

Wasserstein Hall 3018, Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave.

The DSM is the reference used by clinicians, researchers, and insurers to diagnose and classify mental disorders, with the intent to provide specific, objective criteria by which to assess symptoms and determine whether to pay for treatment.  The American Psychiatric Association released the manual’s fifth edition in May 2013, nearly twenty years after the fourth edition, to substantial public and professional criticism.  Please join us for a discussion of the new revisions and their implications for patients, medical practice, research, and the law.

Panelists:

  • Steven E. Hyman, Director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology
  • Anne Becker, Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Global Health and Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • Nita Farahany, Professor of Law, Professor of Genome Sciences & Policy, and Professor of Philosophy at Duke University
  • Moderator: I. Glenn Cohen, Professor of Law, Harvard Law School; Faculty Co-Director, Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics

This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided. For questions, contact petrie-flom@law.harvard.edu or 617-496-4662.

This event is supported by the Oswald DeN. Cammann Fund.

Would Marlise Munoz’s Fetus Have Survived? Should It Have?

This is post is part of The Bioethics Program’s ongoing Online Symposium on the Munoz and McMath cases, which I’ve organized, and is cross-posted from the symposium. To see all symposium contributions, in reverse chronological order, click here.

Had the hospital not relented and removed the ventilator from Marlise Munoz’s body, could the Munoz fetus have been brought to term, or at least to viability? And if so, would the resulting child have experienced any temporary or permanent adverse health outcomes? Despite some overly confident commentary on both “sides” of this case suggesting a clear answer one way or the other—i.e., that there was no point in retaining the ventilator because the fetus could never be viable or was doomed to be born with catastrophic abnormalities; or, on the other hand, that but for the removal of the ventilator, the “unborn baby” was clearly on track to being born healthy—the truth is that we simply don’t know.

Before getting into the limited available data about fetal outcomes in these relatively rare cases, a bit of brush clearing. The New York Times juxtaposed reports about possible abnormalities in the Munoz fetus with the hospital’s stipulation about the fetus’s non-viability in ways that are likely to confuse, rather than clarify:

Lawyers for Ms. Muñoz’s husband, Erick Muñoz, said they were provided with medical records that showed the fetus was “distinctly abnormal” and suffered from hydrocephalus — an accumulation of fluid in the cavities of the brain — as well as a possible heart problem.

The hospital acknowledged in court documents that the fetus was not viable.

Whether intentionally or not, the nation’s newspaper of record implies — wrongly, I think — that the hospital conceded that the fetus would never be viable because of these reported abnormalities. In court, the hospital and Erick Munoz stipulated to a series of facts, including that Marlise was then 22 weeks pregnant and that “[a]t the time of this hearing, the fetus gestating inside Mrs. Munoz is not viable” (emphasis added). The hospital conceded nothing at all about any fetal abnormalities. In short, the Times, and many other commentors, have conflated “non-viability” as a function of gestational age with “non-viability” as a way of characterizing disabilities that are incompatible with life. As I read this stipulation, the hospital was not at all conceding that the fetus would never have been viable, had the ventilator remained in place. Rather, given the constitutional relevance of fetal viability, the hospital was merely conceding the banal scientific fact that the Munoz fetus was, at 22 weeks, not currently viable. There is nothing surprising in the least about the hospital’s “concession” about “viability” in the first sense, above: 22-week fetuses are generally not considered viable. Continue reading

Media Matters: Fetal Abnormalities in the Munoz Case

Nadia N. Sawicki

The tragic case of Marlise Munoz is finally at an end, now that John Peter Smith Hospital has, pursuant to an order by Judge R. H. Wallace, Jr., taken Ms. Munoz off life support and released her body to her family.  A few questions about the media’s role in this case linger in my mind, however; I will be addressing them in a series of posts.

In the days immediately preceding the court’s ruling, media reports frequently mentioned that the fetus Ms. Munoz was carrying was “distinctly abnormal.”  My impression is that these reports were intended to strengthen the case, at least in the public’s eyes, for withdrawal of life support.  Maintaining a dead body on life support against the family’s wishes in order to preserve the life of an able fetus is one thing, commentators seemed to suggest, but the case for doing so when the fetus suffers from hydrocephalus, heart problems, and deformation of the lower extremities is less compelling.

In the eyes of pro-life advocates committed to preserving the potentiality of life at all costs, however, the fetus’ medical condition seems irrelevant.  Unless a fetus is definitively not viable (which in this case the hospital finally conceded it was), a true commitment to the preservation of fetal life would not waver in the face of likely disability upon the child’s birth.

The fervent media reporting about the abnormality of the Munoz fetus seems, at least to me, to reflect a disconnect between the public’s perception of the significance of fetal disability in such cases, and its significance to disability advocates and advocates of pro-life policy.  What lessons, if any, can we learn from this disconnect?

In Memoriam: Adrienne Asch

I’m sorry to report that Adrienne Asch, director of the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University and the Edward and Robin Milstein Professor of Bioethics, died yesterday of cancer. A social psychologist by training (but no relation to Solomon Asch), Professor Asch’s scholarly focus was the ethical, legal, and social implications of human reproduction, especially as it intersects with disability studies. An interdisciplinary scholar (as most bioethicists are), she taught courses at Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Cardozo School of Law, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

I didn’t always agree wth Adrienne, but she was an important scholar. As Sam Bagenstos noted, her death is “a huge loss for the disability world.” Among other things, she challenged pro-choice scholars and activists to rethink the implications of some of their policies and theories for people with disabilities in present and future generations. Here is one example of many.

Adrienne was also a lovely person. Some years ago, I picked her up from Wellesley (where she then taught) and drove her to Dartmouth (where I was a college senior) for a brief visit. It was, from start to finish, an epic fail on my part. In my defense, her assistant gave me terrible directions, I was then unfamiliar with the joy that is Boston rush “hour” traffic (including the fact that it begins at 3pm and lasts until 7pm), and this was before either cell phones or GPS. Nevertheless, what was supposed to be a three-hour drive that left time for her to change clothes at the hotel before her first talk became a four-hour tour during which I grew increasingly anxious about the prospects of getting her to the church on time, as it were. Adrienne was blind (hence my driving her), and this raised the additional issue of what to tell her, and when, about our travels. Ever the intellectual and mentor, as soon as she got into the car, she wanted to hear about the honors thesis I was writing. Alas, I turned out to be utterly incapable of navigating Boston’s traffic and discussing French existentialism at the same time, and soon we were hopelessly lost. I stopped at a gas station for directions (remember when you had to do that?), but by then we had hit rush hour traffic. We finally reached the highway and I managed to make up some time. As we discussed all manner of topics bioethical, I did the math and figured that if I, ahem, flirted with the speed limit, I could just have her to her talk on time.

The New Hampshire state police were not accommodating of this plan, however. Mere yards from our final exit I saw flashing lights in my rearview mirror. Feeling the car slowing down as I pulled over, Adrienne asked brightly, “Oh, are we there?” Mortified, I told her that no, in fact, I was being pulled over for speeding and that we would now certainly be at least a few minutes late for her talk. She would have been well within her rights to be furious with me, but was instead remarkably understanding. (The administrative director of Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute, by contrast, chided me for acting unethically by speeding.) Here‘s a great interview with Adrienne that captures some of her personality, as well as her views about disability and her experiences living with a disability.

Yeshiva University’s notice of Adrienne’s death, along with funeral and shiva details, is here. Tributes are being collected here. She will be missed.

[Cross-posted at The Faculty Lounge]

House and Senate Pass Bill Allowing HIV+ People to Donate Organs

In a week where most of the health law news has been, shall we say, less than hopeful for those of us who like the idea of robust health insurance expansion, as the Washington Blade reports there was one bright spot for progressive health policy: The House and Senate passed the HOPE (HIV Organ Policy Equity Act) which, if signed by the president, will authorize the HHS Secretary and OPTN to investigate and (if the research supports it) allow HIV+ individuals to donate organs to HIV+ individuals. You can read the full text here. The most relevant paragraph is

Clarification

In adopting and using standards of quality under paragraph (2)(E), the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network may adopt and use such standards with respect to organs infected with human immunodeficiency virus (in this paragraph referred to as HIV), provided that any such standards ensure that organs infected with HIV may be transplanted only into individuals who—(A) are infected with HIV before receiving such organ; and(B) (i)are participating in clinical research approved by an institutional review board under the criteria, standards, and regulations described in subsections (a) and (b) of section 377E; or (ii) if the Secretary has determined under section 377E(c) that participation in such clinical research, as a requirement for such transplants, is no longer warranted, are receiving a transplant under the standards and regulations under section 377E(c).

A few quick reactions: (1) What fascinating co-sponsors across the aisle: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) along with Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as original co-sponsors. In the House, Reps. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) was lead sponsor and Andy Harris (R-Md.) was an original co-sponsor. (2) This is a good step forward, but one wonders whether limiting the potential recipients to HIV+ folks is itself wise. I can easily imagine cirucmstances where an individual who faces death would prefer an HIV+ organ even if it will carry with it a significant chance of HIV infection. Perhaps I don’t know enough about the immunology here and there is something I am missing (and commentators please help educate me and other readers). One might indeed wonder if, in some weird way, the bill now creates a disability discrimination (I say that because the Supreme Court has in its jurisprudence treated HIV as capable of causing a major life impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act) in favor of those with HIV, because only they are potentially eligible for a certain pool of organs that may become available. That’s probably not actionable (as I understand it the ADA does not protect non-disabled people from discrimination in favor of the disabled), but it is at least quite curious. (3) Is this a portent of things to come from the administration? Relaxation of the much-reviled ban on gay men donating blood? Or will this “win” for the community (and to be clear the HIV+ community and the gay community are by no means isomorphic) going to sop some of the pressure on the blood ban?

A Case to Watch: Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co.

By Jeremy Kreisberg

A little over two weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a rather obscure ERISA case—Heimsehoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Ins. Co.  The case asks a rather basic question without a readily apparent answer: when a beneficiary of an ERISA-regulated insurance plan seeks to claim benefits, may the statute of limitations period for judicial review of the benefit decision begin before the completion of the plan’s mandatory internal resolution process?  In other words, can a statute of limitations for judicial review begin to run before a beneficiary is permitted to file suit?

The problem this lawsuit seeks to address can be clarified through a hypothetical: Imagine beneficiary B has an ERISA-regulated disability insurance plan with (i.e. provided by her employer but issued and administered by) insurer I.  B’s contract with I states that a three-year statute of limitations for judicial review of benefit decisions begins running at the date that B sends I proof of loss.  Then the following takes place:

  • B sends I her proof of loss on January 1, 2010.
  • I’s internal resolution process is completed on January 2, 2013, and B is denied her claim.
  • B believes the decision was erroneous and seeks to challenge it in court.
  • The court informs B that she has no claim because the statute of limitations—three years from January 1, 2010, the date that B sent I her proof of loss—has run.

B’s case certainly seems rather compelling.  After all, I has functionally denied B any opportunity to receive independent review of I’s benefit decision.  But at oral argument, the Justices raised several interesting arguments that make the outcome of this case far from clear.

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Disabilities and Behavioral Disorders

By Nathaniel Counts

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and related statutes and regulations creates a cause of action that allows children and young adults with disabilities to be able to participate equally in public schools and universities.  “Disability” can include behavioral and other mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, or conduct disorder, to the extent that it interferes with the child’s ability to thrive at school.  Over the period of any individual’s school-going career, quite a few people might be considered disabled under the law.

Actual prevalence of behavioral disorders is of course very difficult to measure, but the prevalence in young children for serious emotional disturbances, behavioral disorders that substantially impair a child’s ability to participate in school, has been most frequently estimated at between 10% and 20% as of 2006, and the prevalence for behavioral disorders that do not rise to the level of serious emotional disturbances is likely somewhat higher.  For college students in 2012, one study found that about 30% of students reported feeling so depressed within the past 12 months that it was difficult to function and about 20% of the students reported being diagnosed or receiving treatment for some type of mental health disorder within the past 12 months.  Even given these limited statistics, it is evident that a significant percentage of the population is currently affected by, or will be affected at some point in their lifetime by, a behavioral disorder and that a sizable proportion of these individuals would likely benefit from some form of services or accommodation in their schooling.

The prevalence of behavioral disorders begs the question: what if the majority of the population experiences some form of behavioral disorder?

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Racism in Transplant Denial? Or Too Few Hearts To Go Around?

Anthony Stokes, a fifteen year old kid from Decatur County, Georgia, is expected to die in a matter of months, according to his doctors at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.  Maybe, they say, he will live for six months.  Who knows?  Anthony suffers from an enlarged, increasingly less functional heart.  His condition is not unusual, and a reasonably effective cure is at hand: a heart transplant. (Learn more about Anthony’s story here.)

However, Anthony has become the latest victim of a dysfunctional U.S. transplantation system, which tempts Americans with a transplant waiting list, but kicks them off if they become too sick or too old.  The problem is that there are too few organs to meet demand, and this perennial problem receives far too little attention from Congress.  Indeed, the U.S. transplantation list, coordinated by the United Network for Organ Sharing, UNOS, (a private organization that coordinates significant aspects of the U.S. transplant system) is so overcrowded that patients increasingly turn to black markets in India, China, Pakistan, South Africa, and other countries if they hope to survive.  (Learn more about that here.) Congressional hearings document Chinese prisoners dying and shortly thereafter Americans receiving organs.

Anthony’s family and some local organizations claim that racism is behind doctors refusing to place the boy on the transplant list.  Anthony is African American.  They ask, what is the harm in letting him on the list?

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Bei Bei Shuai First Degree Murder Charges Dropped

Less than an hour ago, Indianapolis prosecutor, Mr. Terry Curry agreed to drop first degree murder charges against Bei Bei Shuai in an agreement that required her to plead to a misdemeanor.  The case was a month away from trial in what would have been the first prosecution of a pregnant woman in Indiana for attempting suicide.  Ms. Shaui ate several packets of rat poison in a desperate attempt to end her life after being abandoned by her boyfriend.  After being saved by friends and doctors, prosecutors filed first degree murder charges against Shuai, because her baby died.

Bei Bei Shuai’s case highlights the turn to criminal prosecution in fetal protection cases as a terrible national phenomenon.  Shuai was spared the horrible fate experienced by poor women, many of color, across the U.S., including Regina McKnight, Paula Hale, Melissa Rowland, and others. In a forthcoming article to be published in the California Law Review, I argue that these prosecutions represent the new constitutional battlefronts as they burden pregnant women’s due process interests while also imposing the type of cruel and unusual punishment disallowed by the Eighth Amendment. I have argued in prior works found here and here that such prosecutions often involve racial profiling and create hierarchies among women’s pregnancies.  Indeed, most often the pregnant women targeted for threatening harm to their fetuses are so poor that they lack adequate legal representation, relying on overworked public defenders who make valiant efforts, but lack the economic wherewithal to  properly aid in these cases.   Shuai’s case was different in that she had Linda Pence, a valiant, private attorney, who spent over two years providing excellent pro-bono legal aid.

Bei Bei Shuai’s release from murder charges also represents another victory for Advocates for Pregnant Women, the leading organization advocating on behalf of indigent pregnant women.

A Ruling from the 5th Circuit: Pregnancy and Breastfeeding ARE Related

A case from the employment discrimination world that might be of interest to health law folks is EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 10933 (May 30, 2013). The employee in the case, Donnicia Venters, was told that her position had been filled when she returned to work post partum and requested to use space in a back room to express milk. The issue in the case was whether firing Venters for expressing breast milk is sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The district court had concluded that it was not, as a matter of law, and the 5th Circuit reversed. Although at first glance this outcome is apparently a favorable one for women and children, it also reveals ongoing mismatches between anti-discrimination law in the US and the health needs of workers and their families.

The relevant detail of employment discrimination law is that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) provides that discrimination “on the basis of” or “because of” sex includes discrimination on the basis of or because of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” In holding that breastfeeding is a related medical condition of pregnancy, the 5th Circuit stated “Lactation is the physiological process of secreting milk from mammary glands and is directly caused by hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth.” Thus, on the 5th Circuit’s plain meaning interpretation of the statute, breastfeeding is within the PDA.

Other courts have reached conclusions less favorable to breastfeeding. The district court in Colorado wrote thus in deciding that a refusal to give breaks for breast feeding was not sex or disability discrimination: “A plaintiff could potentially succeed on a claim if she alleged and was able to prove that lactation was a medical condition related to pregnancy, and that this condition, and not a desire to breastfeed, was the reason for the discriminatory action(s) that she suffered.” Falk v. City of Glendale, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87278 (D. Colo. 2012). Indeed, understaffing at the Glendale police department was so severe that no one was able to take breaks, even to use the restroom—so the court concluded that Falk’s problem was equal opportunity bad working conditions, not sex discrimination. Continue reading

More Commentary on Why Patients May Be Discriminated Against

Given my recent piece in the New England Journal on discrimination against patients, particularly obese patients in the context of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I found this NY Times story particularly interesting: Disability and Discrimination at the Doctor’s Office. The Times story focuses on patients who are disabled in more traditional ways, but indicates that the main culprit behind the medical discrimination they may experience is not animus, but rather lack of proper equipment, which can be quite expensive.  Luckily, there may be hope on the horizon, thanks to the ACA.

Sex, People with Disabilities, Prostitution, and Universal Health Care: Reflections on “The Sessions”

[Cross-Posted at PrawfsBlawg]

One of my favorite initiatives at Harvard Law School, where I teach, is that faculty members get to offer an optional 10-12 student not-for-credit “First-Year Reading Groups” on a topic of interest to them that is related to law in some way but not too law-class like. I’ve taught a reading group on bioethics and law through film that pairs films with papers/topics in bioethics (e.g., A.I. with readings on personhood, Minority Report and neuroscience and law and predicting criminality, Dirty Pretty Things and organ sale and exploitation, The Constant Gardener with clinical trials in the developing world, Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and therapeutic forgetting and “cosmetic neurology” and many others…)

Next year I will add The Sessions, a film I found very enjoyable starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy from last year that I also found very bioethically interesting. The film is based on a true story and follows Mark O’Brien, a poet who lives in an Iron Lung due to complications from Polio. After unsuccessfully proposing to his caretaker, and believing the end of his life may be nearing, he decides he wants to lose his virginity. He hires Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate, who will offer him a maximum of six sessions but makes clear to him this is therapy not romance. I will stop there to avoid ruining the film, but on to the bioethics…

There are fairly clear issues raised about commodification, exploitation, the difference between sex therapy and prostitution, that I have written about in various forms in various places. These are certainly interesting issues but familiar enough. What the film newly prompted me to think about, though, is actually universal health care. In particular, as I have written about indirectly in a couple of papers, what would some of the most prominent theories explaining why we need universal health care say about whether the state should pay for sex therapy (or perhaps even prostitution) for people with disabilities like Mark who find themselves otherwise unable to have sex?

For example, in his wonderful book Just Health, my colleague Norman Daniels, coming from a more Rawlsian tradition (i.e., a liberal tradition focused on promoting liberty and distributive justice through giving priority to the worst-off), grounds the state’s role in promoting health in the obligation, as a matter of political justice, to ensure access to the “normal opportunity range” to pursue the “array of life plans reasonable persons are likely to develop for themselves.” Although Daniels’ focus is on health care, it seems to me that sexual satisfaction is also part of that normal opportunity range and part of a life plan most of us would like to pursue.

Similarly, Martha Nussbaum in her great book Frontiers of Justice, writing from a more aretaic (i.e., Aristotelian, focusing on character and virtue) perspective, has argued that the state’s role is to enable human flourishing by raising people above the threshold level on a number of “capabilities.” Among these she mentions “bodily integrity,” as including “having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.” I have previously discussed how this kind of approach may justify funding reproductive technologies, but it seems to me as though it also fairly directly establishes an argument for funding Mark’s attempts to lose his virginity.

Now this is meant to be provocative, of course. And for some this is no doubt a reductio ad absurdum against universal health care. Fair enough. But for those who believe there is a moral case for funding universal health care, does the argument also lead to funding these kinds of sex therapies? Health is important, of course, but let’s be frank (and my parents can stop reading at this point) so is sexual satisfaction, and both seem to me essential parts of the normal opportunity range and/or human flourishing.

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Kudos to This American Life

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a recent episode of This American Life, “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde,” about the quest of one Dr. Gilmer (Benjamin) to understand why another, beloved Dr. Gilmer (Vince), had brutally murdered his own father after hearing voices that compelled him to do so. The episode ends (spoiler alert) with the revelation that Vince suffers from Huntington’s, a rare, neurodegenerative disease that causes progressive physicial, cognitive, and psychological deterioration.

Listeners, it seemed to me, could naturally conclude from the episode that it was Vince’s Huntington’s that had caused him to murder his father. That might or might not be true in this particular case. Huntington’s can cause behavioral and mood changes, including irritability, aggression and belligerence. It can also cause (less often) psychosis. But even if Huntington’s caused Vince to murder his father, or somehow contributed to the murder, the extreme violence that Vince displayed — strangling his father, then sawing off his father’s fingertips to preclude identification — is in no way typical of the Huntington’s population as a whole. And so what most troubled me about the episode was its failure to note just how rare this kind of extreme violence is among those with Huntington’s, just as it is very rare among human beings generally. And so I wrote to TAL, requesting a clarification.

I’m happy to report that the TAL producer for the episode, Sarah Koenig — who had not intended to suggest any causal link between Vince’s murder of his father and his Huntington’s, much less between murder and Huntington’s more generally — has issued a clarification on the show’s blog, and promises to make a similar clarification in the episode itself, should they ever re-air it. Kudos to TAL, and many thanks to Sarah for being incredibly gracious in our exchanges.

One clarification deserves another. In my earlier blog post, I also worried that some listeners might  conclude that Vince’s father was similarly driven to commit horrific acts of sexual abuse on Vince and his sister because he, too, was (presumably) suffering from Huntington’s (an autosomal dominant genetic disease). Although I think that a listener who didn’t know better could reasonably conclude that Huntington’s causes people to become sexual predators almost as easily as they could conclude from the episode that Huntington’s causes people to become murderers, nothing in the episode suggests that Sarah, Benjamin Gilmer, or anyone else at TAL believe that Huntington’s causes sexual abuse, or that they intended for listeners to reach that conclusion. I regret anything in my earlier post that suggested otherwise.

Again, I’m very grateful to Sarah and everyone else at TAL for hearing me (and other listeners) out and for agreeing to make the clarification — and just in time for HD Awareness Month!

Discrimination Against Obese Patients

Following up on a blog post I did here several months ago, take a look at – and a listen to – some additional commentary I have in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine.

The gist?  The law prohibits many, but not all, grounds for discrimination against potential patients.  Race, religion, sex, and disability are among the most uniformly protected categories, whereas less than half of states prohibit health care discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, for example. Moreover, the rejection of patients because they smoke, play contact sports, or engage in other risky behavior is legally within the realm of physician discretion, as is discrimination based on other characteristics not protected by law.

So what about obesity discrimination by healthcare providers?  Perhaps one of the last comparatively socially acceptable bases for discrimination, weight has not traditionally been treated as a protected category under civil rights laws. But one possible strategy is to consider the scope of prohibitions against disability discrimination. This is actually a pretty unsettled area of law – but the bottom line, to the extent there is one, is that rejection of an overweight or obese patient who is neither impaired to the extent of being disabled nor regarded as disabled would be legally permissible under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Rejection of an obese patient who is disabled could also be permissible, so long as the disability was not the reason for the rejection.  The only problem would come up if a disabled obese patient were to be rejected on that basis, and could prove that to be the case.  So this may not be the most helpful approach to address obesity discrimination in the healthcare context, and in my opinion, reliance on simple medical professionalism and the commitment to caring for those in need has much more to offer.                          

This American Life and Stigma

Update: TAL has made a clarification. Please see this post for more.

Let me begin by saying how much I absolutely adore This American Life. I listen to it religiously. I particularly had been looking forward to the most recent pocast episode of TAL: Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde. As the episode’s blurb teases, “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde” concerns a doctor — Benjamin Gilmer — who takes over the rural South Carolina practice of Vince Gilmer (no relation). Vince is no longer available to see patients because he is serving a prison sentence for killing his father. As Benjamin gets to know Vince’s — and now his — patients, he forms a picture of Vince that’s at odds with his status as a convicted father murderer. How could this doctor who was so devoted to his patients have so brutally murdered his own father?

This episode is right up my alley. True crime? Check. Forensic psychology? Check. The intersection of law and medicine? Yes, please. So when I awoke yesterday morning at 5 am and couldn’t go back to sleep, I eagerly cued up the podcast. The episode recounts, in TAL’s  typically-riveting fashion, the story of Benjamin’s search for the truth behind Vince’s murder of his father. I enjoyed every minute of the episode until the last five minutes or so, when I became troubled by one critical omission.

Spoilers  follow after the jump; listen to the episode first. Continue reading

Introducing our Online Abortion and Reproductive Technology Symposium

[Editor's Note: This is Glenn Cohen guest posting on behalf of Kim Mutcherson, what follows below is her post. I will be posting on behalf of several symposium contributors over the next few days.]

On Friday, April 5, a group of almost 30 (mostly legal) scholars gathered at Rutgers Law-Camden to have difficult conversations about abortion and assisted reproduction. The event, sponsored by Rutgers Law and the Law School Initiative of the Center for Reproductive Rights (http://reproductiverights.org/en/our-work/law-school-initiative) sought to initiate discussion about the seeming gulf between those working on issues related to abortion and those working on assisted reproduction and assisted reproductive technology (ART).  Friday’s conversation was the first of at least three planned events with the other two to be sponsored at some future point by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard Law School and the Program for the Study of Reproductive Justice in the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. If the nature of the conversation at this kick-off event is a harbinger of things to come, I am anticipating that top-notch and cutting edge scholarship related to reproductive rights and reproductive justice will emerge from workshop participants.

While it might seem intuitive that scholars of reproduction would talk often, much of the work in this arena exists in silos. Those writing about abortion have plenty of work to do in keeping up with the flurry of state laws seeking to destroy what remains of Roe v. Wade in a post-Planned Parenthood v. Casey world. And those working in the world of assisted reproduction have to keep abreast of emerging science that is always light years ahead of what the law has done or seems capable of doing. As a consequence, opportunities to study the intertwining and divergence between the right to end a pregnancy and a right to create one are sparse.

And so, in the year that we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Roe, we engaged in a respectful, honest, and richly complex dialogue about the appropriate paradigm for understanding the right to abortion and the right to use assisted reproduction—liberty, equality or some new paradigm that we have yet to fully embrace or articulate.

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