Roundups Law and Policy

Legal Wrap: Finally Some Justice for Bei Bei Shuai

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Bei Bei Shuai's prosecution finally comes to an end, and more good news from federal courts reviewing state-level abortion restrictions.

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

The prosecution of Bei Bei Shuai in Indiana is one of the best examples of the shift by anti-abortion activists toward criminalizing pregnancy to both attack reproductive rights and punish pregnant women for failed pregnancies. Shuai, a Chinese immigrant, ingested rat poison in a suicide attempt in late 2010. Shuai survived the suicide attempt, but the fetus she was carrying did not, and prosecutors charged Shuai with feticide. Members of the medical community rushed to Shuai’s defense and attacked the prosecution as misguided and ideological. Finally, after spending more than a year in prison and facing felony murder charges, prosecutors announced Friday they had agreed to a plea deal with Shuai. In exchange for Shuai pleading guilty to misdemeanor criminal recklessness, she will be released with no further time to serve. It’s a great outcome in a case that never should have been prosecuted to begin with, but sadly Shuai’s case is not unique in Indiana. Purvi Patel, another woman of color, faces charges of felony neglect of a dependent following an investigation of a deceased fetus allegedly found in a shopping center dumpster.

Among the most popular pieces of state-level anti-abortion legislation this last session were admitting privileges laws for abortion providers. Proponents of the laws claim they are necessary to prevent against such problems as “patient abandonment,” an essentially fictitious problem whereby providers abandon patients post-abortion and as a result those patients suffer complications related to their abortions. However, as a federal court in Wisconsin made clear when it blocked that state’s admitting privileges law, proponents of these restrictions haven’t actually offered any evidence showing patient abandonment is a problem, and until they can, admitting privileges restrictions are nothing more than a solution in search of a problem.

Not surprisingly, a judge in North Dakota came to similar conclusions about that state’s admitting privileges law.

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In another reminder that defending unconstitutional abortion restrictions doesn’t come cheap, attorneys for the State of Alabama disclosed they were prepared to spend as much as $80,000 in expert fees alone defending that state’s targeted regulation of abortion provider (TRAP) law.

Not only is it expensive to litigate abortion laws, it can take a long time to get a final result. Case in point: Indiana, where officials are finally ending their quest to cut Planned Parenthood off from state Medicaid funds. Indiana was the first state to pass a law ending state funding to Planned Parenthood over two years ago, but it was this summer that the Supreme Court effectively brought an end to those efforts by refusing to step in and review an appellate court decision that held Indiana’s defunding law was unconstitutional.

In a sobering reminder of what abortion providers risk just by doing their jobs, last week a Wisconsin man was sentenced to ten years for plotting to kill a Planned Parenthood doctor.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the nomination of Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit Court, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers don’t plan to filibuster it once they’re back from August recess.

Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia have come under fire for partisan activities and connections outside the bench—activities and connections that all other federal judges are prohibited from because, unlike Supreme Court justices, they are bound by a code of ethics. Congressional Democrats would like to change that, and have introduced a bill that would bind Supreme Court justices to the same ethical standards as other federal court judges. Naturally, Chief Justice John Roberts and other conservatives on the bench oppose the idea.

And lastly, just over a month ago the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage for purposes of federal benefits as a union between a man and a woman. Since that time, a whole new landscape of federal litigation over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage has emerged.

News Abortion

Study: Telemedicine Abortion Care a Boon for Rural Patients

Nicole Knight

Despite the benefits of abortion care via telemedicine, 18 states have effectively banned the practice by requiring a doctor to be physically present.

Patients are seen sooner and closer to home in clinics where medication abortion is offered through a videoconferencing system, according to a new survey of Alaskan providers.

The results, which will be published in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, suggest that the secure and private technology, known as telemedicine, gives patients—including those in rural areas with limited access—greater choices in abortion care.

The qualitative survey builds on research that found administering medication abortion via telemedicine was as safe and effective as when a doctor administers the abortion-inducing medicine in person, study researchers said.

“This study reinforces that medication abortion provided via telemedicine is an important option for women, particularly in rural areas,” said Dr. Daniel Grossman, one of the authors of the study and professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). “In Iowa, its introduction was associated with a reduction in second-trimester abortion.”

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Maine and Minnesota also provide medication abortion via telemedicine. Clinics in four states—New York, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington—are running pilot studies, as the Guardian reported. Despite the benefits of abortion care via telemedicine, 18 states have effectively banned the practice by requiring a doctor to be physically present.

The researchers noted that even “greater gains could be made by providing [medication abortion] directly to women in their homes,” which U.S. product labeling doesn’t allow.

In late 2013, researchers with Ibis Reproductive Health and Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health interviewed providers, such as doctors, nurses, and counselors, in clinics run by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands that were using telemedicine to provide medication abortion. Providers reported telemedicine’s greatest benefit was to pregnant people. Clinics could schedule more appointments and at better hours for patients, allowing more to be seen earlier in pregnancy.

Nearly twenty-one percent of patients nationwide end their pregnancies with medication abortion, a safe and effective two-pill regime, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alaska began offering the abortion-inducing drugs through telemedicine in 2011. Patients arrive at a clinic, where they go through a health screening, have an ultrasound, and undergo informed consent procedures. A doctor then remotely reviews the patients records and answers questions via a videoconferencing link, before instructing the patient on how to take the medication.

Before 2011, patients wanting abortion care had to fly to Anchorage or Seattle, or wait for a doctor who flew into Fairbanks twice a month, according to the study’s authors.

Beyond a shortage of doctors, patients in Alaska must contend with vast geography and extreme weather, as one physician told researchers:

“It’s negative seven outside right now. So in a setting like that, [telemedicine is] just absolutely the best possible thing that you could do for a patient. … Access to providers is just so limited. And … just because you’re in a state like that doesn’t mean that women aren’t still as much needing access to these services.”

“Our results were in line with other research that has shown that this service can be easily integrated into other health care offered at a clinic, can help women access the services they want and need closer to home, and allows providers to offer high-level care to women from a distance,” Kate Grindlay, lead author on the study and associate at Ibis Reproductive Health, said in a statement.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”

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