Abortion, Vaccines and Religion: Top Health Law Decisions of 2021
(Reuters) – An active year for health law, 2021 saw continued litigation over the COVID-19 pandemic, abortion and the Affordable Care Act. Here are some of the top decisions:
THE SUPREME COURT REVISITS ABORTION
The U.S. Supreme Court in December left in place a ban on most abortions in Texas while a legal challenge against it proceeds, the clearest sign yet that the more conservative court, with three justices appointed by Republican President Donald Trump, may be open to weakening or overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights nationwide when it rules on a separate case involving a similar Mississippi law.
The Texas law bans abortions at around six weeks, a point when many women do not yet realize they are pregnant, with no exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and allows private citizens to sue anyone who performs or assists a woman in getting an abortion that is banned by the law. It is one of many recent efforts by Republican state lawmakers to criminalize abortion in the hope that the nation’s top court will undo its earlier precedent.
CHALLENGES TO COVID RULES EXPAND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Rules put in place by states to combat COVID-19, including limits on gatherings, mask mandates and others, drew numerous legal challenges on the grounds of religious freedom. The Supreme Court, acting largely through its shadow docket, expanded the scope of religious freedom claims, according to experts, striking down several rules on the grounds that they treated religious institutions less favorably than some secular ones.
The shift was further crystallized by a decision in June in favor of a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that sued after Philadelphia refused to place children for foster care with the organization because it barred same-sex couples from applying to become foster parents.
COURTS CRACK DOWN ON FEDERAL VACCINE MANDATES
President Joe Biden’s administration moved aggressively in 2021 to promote vaccination against COVID-19, but many of those efforts have met resistance in court. A rule requiring vaccinations for workers in healthcare facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding and an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule requiring vaccine mandates for companies with more than 100 employees was blocked, though was later revived and now awaits Supreme Court review.
SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT
The Supreme Court in June once again upheld the Affordable Care Act against legal challenges from Republican-led states, further cementing former President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement. The law banned insurers from charging more to patients with preexisting conditions, created regulated health insurance exchanges for consumers to purchase coverage and funded the expansion of Medicaid in many states.
FEDERAL CIRCUIT UPHOLDS COVID VACCINE PATENTS
The Federal Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in December upheld biotechnology startup Arbutus Biopharma Corp’s patents on nanoparticle technology used in Moderna Inc’s COVID-19 vaccines, potentially setting up a legal battle over whether Moderna must pay royalties.
The ruling comes amid a separate patent dispute between Moderna and the U.S. National Institute of Health. Both cases suggest that high-stakes litigation over the life-saving technology is likely to continue.