Legal Wrap: Big Wins in North Dakota and Mississippi; SCOTUS Against Human Rights

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Roundups Law and Policy

Legal Wrap: Big Wins in North Dakota and Mississippi; SCOTUS Against Human Rights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Reproductive rights advocates scored a couple of victories last week while the Supreme Court considers the impact of allowing patents on human genetic material.

Legal Wrap is a round-up of key legal and reproductive justice news.

It was a busy week for the judicial branch, with a couple of important decisions coming out of the lower courts and the Supreme Court considering everything from gene patents to who is considered a parent in just one week.

Lets start with some good news. Mississippi’s lone abortion clinic will remain open for now as a federal judge blocked the state’s admitting privileges law. The state was in the process of closing the clinic after area hospitals refused to grant admitting privileges for physicians at the clinic as required by the state’s most recent TRAP law.

Meanwhile in North Dakota, reproductive rights advocates scored a major victory as a judge agreed to permanently block the state’s ban on medication abortion. That makes two big wins in one week in states that needed them badly. Hooray!

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a gene-patenting suit that has the potential to widely affect access to breast cancer treatment and the treatment of other cancers as well. At issue in the case is whether or not human genetic material, once isolated or extracted from the body, can be considered “patent-eligible subject matter.” The case before the court began back in 2009 when cancer patients and medical researchers sued to challenge the patents issued to Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City. Researchers at Myriad had discovered DNA sequences in two genes that signal a high risk for the development of breast and ovarian cancer. With the patents for the genes secured, Myriad went on to develop a test for the signal mutations in both genes. Costs associated with the test are as high as $3000 per test. Biotech and pharmaceutical companies have a close eye on the case, arguing a ruling rejecting the patentability of human genes could curtail investment into gene-related research and drugs. Patient advocates argue that “products of nature” cannot be patented and doing so simply allows corporations to take advantage and profit of the sick. A decision in the case is not expected until summer.

The Supreme Court also heard arguments in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, a case that touches on the balance between the fundamental right of individuals to parent their biological children, and of minority and politically disadvantaged communities to protect their cultural identity and integrity. It’s a complicated and important case, and one that Elizabeth Chen navigates masterfully here. Like the Myriad Genetics case, a decision in this matter is not expected until summer.

Lastly, the Supreme Court issued a significant ruling last week that once again put corporate power ahead of individual human rights. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against Shell Oil in Nigeria, holding that corporations cannot be held liable in U.S. courts for human rights abuses that occurred overseas. It’s a disappointing decision that will leave many victims of human rights violations abroad with no effective avenue for legal relief.

A California law that seeks to ban licensed counselors from using “gay conversion therapy” is back before the federal courts as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals considers whether the therapy is free speech or a medical treatment that can be regulated by the government.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced the state will not appeal a ruling that guarantees contraception coverage for most Missourians. Last month a federal judge found Senate Bill 749 which granted any “employer health plan provider, health plan sponsor, health care provider, or any other person or entity” the ability to refuse to provide coverage for contraception, abortion or sterilization” conflicted with federal law. Koster, a Republican-turned-Democrat called Missouri Republicans’ attempt to deny contraceptive coverage to women in Missouri “just plain foolishness.”

A federal judge ruled Friday that conversations between anti-choice terrorists Angel Dillard and Scott Roeder can be kept confidential because those conversations took place while Dillard was acting as a minister to Roeder in prison. Dillard is accused of sending threats to Dr. Mila Means, an abortion-provider who was training to step in following Roeder’s murder of Dr. George Tiller. Dillard reportedly sought Roeder out in connection with her threats to Means.

As expected, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit in federal court to block Arkansas’ 12-week abortion ban. The case was originally assigned to U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson who recused himself due to his connections with attorneys and parties involved in the suit. The case is now assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright, a conservative Republican who is perhaps best known as the judge who dismissed Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against former-President Bill Clinton.

The National Women’s Law Center, along with attorneys in Michigan, filed suit in federal court on behalf of a high school student who was sexually assaulted at school by a fellow student and star basketball player. The suit alleges that the school violated Title IX when it refused to investigate her complaint, urged the student not to file charges so as to not ruin the perpetrator’s chances at being recruited to play collegiate basketball, and failed to protect her from an onslaught of bullying that eventually forced the victim to transfer.

Finally, it may be time for a nation-wide Title IX teach-in because it’s not just high schools having difficulty following the civil rights law. Both Swarthmore College and Occidental College face similar federal lawsuits, and both were filed just last week.