Katie O'Connor

  • May 31, 2017

    *This piece is part of the ACSblog Symposium: 2017 ACS National Convention. The symposium will consider topics featured at the three day convention, scheduled for June 8-10, 2017. Learn more about the Convention here

    by Katie O’Connor

    In a couple of critical ways, this decade has seen a recommitment and expansion of access to reproductive health care for all Americans. To start off the decade, in early 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, drastically reducing the number of Americans without health insurance. Between 2013 and 2015, the proportion of 15-44 year old women who were uninsured in the country fell by 36 percent, largely as a result of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and subsidized private coverage. Moreover, the ACA guaranteed full coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives for women. All told, millions of women who might have struggled in the past to afford contraception (and other reproductive health care), or who might have gone without, now have access as long as the protections of the ACA remain in place.

    While the ACA put access to contraception and other reproductive health services within reach for many Americans, it failed to guarantee coverage for abortion and allowed states to ban abortion coverage in their ACA marketplace plans. Nevertheless, reproductive rights advocates found reason to celebrate a victory for the right to abortion in 2016. That year, in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Supreme Court forcefully reaffirmed the constitutional right to abortion and added teeth to the “undue burden” standard that was adopted two and a half decades ago. The case challenged two parts of Texas’s House Bill 2 – the “admitting privileges requirement,” which required abortion providers in the state to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and the “surgical-center requirement,” which required abortion clinics to meet expensive and often unnecessary standards as ambulatory surgical centers. The two requirements, if allowed to go into full effect, would have forced over 75 percent of the state’s abortion facilities to close. In overturning the Fifth Circuit’s opinion upholding both provisions, the Court reiterated the undue burden standard from Planned Parenthood v. Casey and clarified that the standard requires a balancing of burdens and benefits. In assessing challenges to restrictions on abortion, courts must “consider the burdens a law imposes on abortion access together with the benefits those laws confer.” Moreover, the Court rejected the notion that “legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty” and made clear that courts should consider evidence of a restriction’s medical benefits presented during judicial proceedings in addition to legislative findings, if any, in determining the restriction’s constitutionality. Whole Woman’s Health built upon existing precedent, reinforced the constitutional right to abortion and provided further guidance for courts considering restrictions on the right. In doing so, the Court dealt a blow to sham abortion restrictions that purport to make abortion safer but really just make it less accessible.

  • March 1, 2017

    by Katie O’Connor

    In an era of record political polarization, there are still a handful of issues on which Americans seem to agree. One such issue is the need to implement serious campaign finance reform and drastically reduce the amount of money in politics. According to a 2015 New York Times/CBS News poll, 84 percent of respondents thought that money has too much influence in American political campaigns. 39 percent of respondents said the system for funding political campaigns needs fundamental changes, and another 46 percent said the system needs to be completely rebuilt. Over three-quarters of respondents were in favor of limiting the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns.

    Despite a near consensus on the need for change, little has been done to slow the flood of money into politics in recent years. In fact, it has only hastened, with some help from the Supreme Court. The 2016 presidential election is estimated to have cost $6.9 billion, up from $4.3 billion in 2000. Part of the blame for the impasse lies with Congress, which has been growing increasingly gridlocked for decades. But Congressional deadlock is not a total bar to campaign finance reform.

    The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the agency whose mission is to enforce and administer campaign finance laws. Specifically, the FEC enforces laws which seek to “limit the disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and special interest groups on the outcome of federal elections; regulate spending in campaigns for federal office; and deter abuses by mandating public disclosure of campaign finances.” Despite its bipartisan and overwhelmingly popular mission and its distance from a dysfunctional Congress, the FEC is not immune to gridlock. In fact, it has come to be referred to, in some circles, as the Failure to Enforce Commission.

  • February 10, 2017

    by Katie O’Connor

    Throughout his campaign and in the months since his election, President Trump has repeatedly pledged that his nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case which guarantees the right to abortion. Always a fan of suspense, Trump released two lists of potential nominees before his election, and legal and advocacy organizations began compiling profiles on each of the names. But it was not until Feb. 1, 2017, that speculation regarding the potential nominee to fill Justice Scalia’s seat ended, and President Trump formally transmitted the nomination of Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Senate for confirmation.

    Despite the president’s campaign pledges, we cannot know with certainty how Judge Gorsuch would rule if the Court were asked to overturn Roe v. Wade. What we do know, however, is the following.

    Judge Gorsuch is no champion of women’s access to contraception and reproductive healthcare more broadly. He joined the 2013 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, which found that Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation, can have a sincerely-held religious belief that certain contraceptive methods are actually abortifacients (though experts argue they are not) and that facilitating coverage of those methods would be a sin. Moreover, the decision ruled, Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs would be substantially burdened by a provision under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that requires the corporation to provide health insurance to its employees that includes coverage of those contraceptive methods. Finally, the decision reads, the requirement of such coverage is not narrowly tailored to further the government’s interest in “public health” and “gender equality.” While the government sought to provide comprehensive and seamless coverage of preventative health services to women and men alike, the Tenth Circuit, joined by Judge Gorsuch, essentially found that the religious beliefs of a for-profit corporation outweighed the corporation’s employees’ right to such coverage.

  • November 18, 2016

    by Katie O’Connor

    This year, for the second time in sixteen years, the winner of the national popular vote tally will not be the winner of the Electoral College vote and will not, consequently, be the next president of our country. In other words, this year, for the second time in sixteen years, the candidate who received the most votes from American voters will not win the election. This can and does happen, of course, because of the Electoral College system.

    There are many proffered explanations for why the Electoral College was created and maintained and none of them are particularly flattering to our democracy. The racist roots of the Electoral College are obvious. At the time our constitution was created, representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives were apportioned based on the three-fifths compromise, which counted each slave as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment. This allowed for increased representation in southern slave states even though slaves could not vote. Subsequently, each state was given a number of electors to the Electoral College equivalent to the state’s two senators plus its number of representatives, furthering the skewed representation by slave states.

    Though it may not have been the reason the Electoral College was created, it soon became equally obvious that the institution furthered a sexist agenda as well. In a direct national popular vote system, a state could double its potential influence in an election by extending the franchise to women. With the Electoral College, though, a state would have the same influence regardless of how many people voted. Thus, the Electoral College disincentivized expanding the franchise and allowed for the continued disfranchisement of women with impunity.

  • November 10, 2016

    by Katie O'Connor

    Putting politics aside (which I acknowledge is not the easiest thing to do right now), most people felt some sense of relief on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. We did not wake up to a nail-bitingly close election, to a plane full of lawyers flying to Florida or Ohio or Pennsylvania, to lawsuits being filed over rigging and fraud and voter suppression. We did not wake up to a nightmare scenario like that of Nov. 8, 2000. Broadly speaking, our election system functioned the way it is supposed to function and the results reflected the votes cast by the people.

    But that is only the top line of the story. Beneath the surface, myriad issues deserve our attention.

    This was the first election in over 50 years where voters were without the protections of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and that almost certainly took its toll. Section 5 required federal approval for proposed voting changes in states and local jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices. This put the onus on the states to justify restrictions on the right to vote and put time on the side of voters whose rights would be protected until the state had proven that new rules would not have a discriminatory effect. The Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, striking down Section 5, opened the door to onerous voting restrictions and many states wasted no time passing them. As a result, voters in North Carolina, Arizona, Texas, and many other states had to navigate new burdens during this election and many citizens were undoubtedly disenfranchised as a result. In the coming months, we must determine how these laws ultimately affected the right to vote and whether the Voting Rights Act needs to be strengthened to prevent it from happening again.

    This was the second election in sixteen years that resulted in a split between the winner of the national popular vote and the winner of the Electoral College vote. As previous candidates in this scenario have done, the candidates this year knew the rules of the game and accepted that the Electoral College ultimately decides the election. Nevertheless, this result should induce us to revisit the fairness and utility of the Electoral College. There are valid arguments on both sides of the debate, but they all deserve a fair hearing.