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KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: Alabama Court Rules Embryos Are Children. What Now?

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’: Alabama Court Rules Embryos Are Children. What Now?

KFF Health News’ ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Alabama Court Rules Embryos Are Children. What Now?
Episode Number: 335
Published: Feb. 22,2024

[Editor’s note: This transcript was generated using both transcription software and a human’s light touch. It has been edited for style and clarity.]

Julie Rovner: Hello, and welcome back to “What the Health?” I’m Julie Rovner, chief Washington correspondent for KFF Health News, and I’m joined by some of the best and smartest health reporters in Washington. We’re taping this week on Thursday, Feb. 22, at 10 a.m. As always, news happens fast, and things might have changed by the time you hear this, so here we go. We are joined today via video conference by Lauren Weber of The Washington Post.

Lauren Weber: Hello, hello.

Rovner: Victoria Knight of Axios.

Victoria Knight: Hello, everyone.

Rovner: And my KFF Health News colleague Rachana Pradhan.

Rachana Pradhan: Hi, there. Good to be back.

Rovner: Congress is out this week, but there is still tons of news, so we will get right to it. We’re going to start with abortion because there is lots of news there. The biggest is out of Alabama, where the state Supreme Court ruled last week that frozen embryos created for IVF [in vitro fertilization] are legally children and that those who destroy them can be held liable. In fact, the justices called the embryos “extrauterine children,” which, in covering this issue for 40 years, I never knew was a thing. There are lots of layers to this, but let’s start with the immediate, what it could mean to those seeking to get pregnant using IVF. We’ve already heard that the University of Alabama’s IVF clinic has ceased operations until they can figure out what this means.

Pradhan: I think that that is the immediate fallout right now. We’ve seen Alabama’s arguably flagship university saying that they are going to halt. And I believe some of the coverage that I saw, there was even a woman who was about to start a cycle or was literally about to have embryos implanted and had to encounter that extremely jarring development. Beyond the immediate, and of course, Julie, I’m sure we’ll talk about this, a bit about the personhood movement and fetal rights movement in general, but a lot of the country might say, “Oh, well, it’s Alabama. It’s only Alabama.” But as we know it, it really just takes one state, it seems like these days, to open the floodgates for things that might actually take hold much more broadly across the country. So that’s what I’m …

Rovner: It’s funny, the first big personhood push I covered was in 2011 in Mississippi, so next door to Alabama, very conservative state, where everybody assumed it was going to win. And one of the things that the opposition said is that this would ban most forms of birth control and IVF, and it got voted down in Mississippi. So here we are, what, 13 years later. But I mean, I think people don’t quite appreciate how IVF works is that doctors harvest as many eggs as they can and basically create embryos. Because for every embryo that results in a successful pregnancy, there are usually many that don’t.

And of course, couples who are trying to have babies using IVF tend to have more embryos than they might need, and, generally, those embryos are destroyed or donated to research, or, in some cases — I actually went back and looked this up — in the early 2000s there was a push, and it’s still there, there’s an adoption agency that will let you adopt out your unused embryos for someone else to carry to term. And apparently, all of this, I guess maybe not the adoption, but all the rest of this could theoretically become illegal under this Alabama Supreme Court ruling.

Pradhan: And one thing I just want to say, too, Julie, piggybacking on that point too is not just in each cycle that someone goes through with IVF — as you said, there are multiple embryos — but it often takes two people who want to start a family, it often takes multiple IVF cycles to have a successful pregnancy from that. It’s not like it’s a one-time shot, it usually takes a long time. And so you’re really talking about a lot of embryos, not just a one-and-done situation.

Rovner: And every cycle is really expensive. I know lots of people who have both successfully and unsuccessfully had babies using IVF and it’s traumatic. The drugs that are used to stimulate the extra eggs for the woman are basically rough, and it costs a lot of money, and it doesn’t always work. It seems odd to me that the pro-life movement has gotten to the point where they are stopping people who want to get pregnant and have children from getting pregnant and having children. But I guess that is the outflow of this. Lauren, you wanted to add something?

Weber: Yeah, I just wanted to chime in on that. I mean, I think we’re really going to see a lot of potential political ramifications from this. I mean, after this news came down, and just to put in context, the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reported in 2021 that there were 91,906 births via IVF. So that’s almost 92,000 families in 2021 alone. You have a political constituency of hundreds of thousands of parents across the U.S. that feel very strongly about this because they have received children that they paid a lot of money for and worked very hard to get. And it was interesting after this news came down — I will admit, I follow a lot of preppy Southern influencers who are very apolitical and if anything conservative, who all were very aggressively saying, “The only reason I could have my children is through this. We have to make a stand.”

I mean, these are not political people. These are people that are — you could even argue, veering into tradwife [traditional wife] territory in terms of social media. I think we’re really going to see some political ramifications from this that already are reflected in what Donald Trump has recently been reported as feeling about how abortion limits could cost him voters. I do wonder if IVF limits could really cause quite an uproar for conservative candidates. We’ll see.

Rovner: Yeah. Well, Nikki Haley’s already gotten caught up in this. She’s very pro-life. On the other hand, she had one of her children using IVF, which she’s been pretty frank about. She, of course, got asked about this yesterday and her eyes had the deer-in-the-headlights look, and she said, “Well, embryos are children,” and it’s like, “Well, then what about your extra embryos?” Which I guess nobody asked about. But yeah, I mean clearly you don’t have to be a liberal to use IVF to have babies, and I think you’re absolutely right. I want to expand this though, because the ruling was based on this 2018 constitutional amendment approved by voters in Alabama that made it state policy to, quote, “Recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children.”

I should point out that this 2018 amendment did not directly try to create fetal personhood in the way that several states tried — and, as I mentioned, failed — in the 2010s, yet that’s how the Alabama Supreme Court interpreted it. Now, anti-abortion advocates in other states, Rachana, you mentioned this, are already trying to use this decision to apply to abortion bans and court cases there. What are the implications of declaring someone a person at the moment of fertilization? It obviously goes beyond just IVF, right?

Knight: Well, and I think you mentioned already, birth control is also the next step as well. Which basically they don’t want you to have a device that will stop a sperm from reaching an egg. And so I think that could have huge ramifications as well. So many young women across the U.S. use IUDs or other types of birth control. I know that’s one application that people are concerned about. I don’t know if there are others.

Rovner: Yeah, I’ve seen things like, if you’re pregnant, can you now drive in the HOV [high-occupancy vehicle] lane because you have another person?

Pradhan: I think that’s one of the more benign, maybe potential impacts of this. But I mean, if an embryo is a child, I mean it would affect everything from, I think, criminal laws affecting murder or any other … you could see there being criminal law impacts there. I think also, as far as child support, domestic laws, involving families, what would you — presumably maybe not everyone that I imagine who are turning to fertility treatments to start a family or to grow a family may not have a situation where there are two partners involved in that decision. I think it could affect everything, frankly. So much of our tax estate laws are impacted by whether people have children or not, and so …

Rovner: And whether those children have been born yet.

Pradhan: … tax deductions, can you claim an embryo as a dependent? I mean, it would affect everything. So I think they’re very wide, sweeping ramifications beyond the unfortunate consequences that some people might face, as Lauren said, which is that they’re just trying to start a family and now that’s being jeopardized.

Rovner: I think Georgia already has a law that you can take a tax deduction if you’re pregnant. I have been wondering, what happens to birthdays? Do they cease to mean anything? It completely turns on its head the way we think about people and humans, and I mean obviously they say, “Well, yeah, of course it is a separate being from the moment of fertilization, but that doesn’t make it a legal person.” And I think that’s what this debate is about. I did notice in Alabama — of course, what happened, what prompted this case was that some patient in a hospital got into the lab where the frozen embryos were kept and took some out and literally just dropped them on the floor and broke the vial that they were in. And the question is whether the families who belong to those embryos could sue for some kind of recourse, but it would not be considered murder because, under Alabama’s statutes, it has to be a child in utero.

And obviously frozen embryos are not yet in utero, they’re in a freezer somewhere. In that sense it might not be murder, but it could become — I mean, this is something that I think people have been thinking about and talking about obviously for many years, and you wonder if this is just the beginning of we’re going to see how far this can go, particularly in some of the more conservative states. Well, meanwhile, The New York Times reported last week that former President Trump, who’s literally been on just about every side of the abortion debate over the years, is leaning towards supporting a 16-week ban — in part, according to the story, because it’s a round number. Trump, of course, was a supporter of abortion rights until he started running for president as a Republican.

And, in winning the endorsement of skeptical anti-abortion groups in 2016, promised to appoint only anti-abortion judges and to reimpose government restrictions from previous Republican administrations. He did that and more, appointing the three Supreme Court justices who enabled the overturn of Roe v. Wade. But more recently, he’s seen the political backlash over that ruling and the number of states that have voted for abortion rights, including some fairly red states, and he’s been warning Republicans not to emphasize the issue. So why would he fail to follow his own advice now, particularly if it would animate voters in swing states? He keeps saying he’s not in the primaries anymore, that he’s basically running a general-election campaign.

Knight: I mean, I think to me, it seems like he’s clearly trying to thread the needle here. He knows some of the more social conservative of his supporters want him to do something about abortion. They want him to take a stand. And so he decided on allegedly 16 weeks, four months, which is less strict than some states. We saw Florida was 10 weeks. And then some other states …

Rovner: I think Florida is six weeks now.

Knight: Oh, sorry, six weeks. OK.

Rovner: Right. Pending a court decision.

Knight: Yeah. And then other states, in Tennessee, complete abortion ban with little room for exceptions. So 16 weeks is longer than some other states have enacted that are stricter. Roe v. Wade was about 24 weeks. So to me, it seems like he’s trying to find some middle ground to try to appease those social conservatives, but not be too strict.

Rovner: Although, I mean, one of the things that a 16-week ban would not do is protect all the women that we’ve been reading about who are with wanted pregnancies, who have things go wrong at 19 or 20 or 21 weeks, which are before viability but after 16 weeks. Well, unless they had — he does say he wants exceptions, and as we know, as we’ve talked about every week for the last six months, those exceptions, the devil is in the details and they have not been usable in a lot of states. But I’m interested in why Trump, after saying he didn’t want to wade into this, is now wading into this. Lauren, you wanted to add something?

Weber: Yeah, I wanted to echo your point because I think it’s important to note that 16 weeks is not based, it seems like, on any scientific reason. It sounds like to me, from what I understand from what’s out there, that 20 weeks is more when you can actually see if there’s heart abnormalities and other issues. So it sounds like from the reporting the Times did, was that he felt like 16 weeks was good as,  quote, “It was a round number.” So this isn’t exactly, these weak timing of bans, as I’m sure we’ve discussed with this podcast, are not necessarily tied towards scientific development of where the fetus is. So I think that’s an important thing to note.

Rovner: Yes. Rachana.

Pradhan: I mean, I think, and we’ve talked about this, but it’s the perennial danger in weighing in on any limit, and certainly a national limit, but any limit at all, is that 16 weeks, of course as the anti-abortion movement and I think many more people know now, the CDC data shows that the vast majority of abortions annually occur before that point in pregnancy. And so there are, of course, some anti-abortion groups that are trying to thread the needle and back a more middle-ground approach such as this one, 15 weeks, 16 weeks, banning it after that point. But for many, it’s certainly not anywhere good enough. And I think if you’re going to try to motivate your conservative base, I still have a lot of questions about whether they would find that acceptable. And I think it depends on how they message it, honestly.

If they say, “This is the best we can do right now and we’re trying,” that might win over some voters. But on the flip side, it’s still enough for Democrats to be able to run with it and say any national ban obviously is unacceptable to them, but it gives them enough ammunition, I think, to still say that former President Trump wants to take your rights away. And I think, as Lauren noted, genetic testing and things these days of course can happen and does happen before 16 weeks. So there might be some sense of whether there might be, your child has a lethal chromosomal disorder or something like that, that might make the pregnancy not viable. But the big scan that happens about midway through pregnancy is around 20 weeks, and that’s often when you, unfortunately, some people find out that there are things that would make it very difficult for their baby to survive so …

Rovner: Well, it seems that no matter what Trump does or says he will do if he’s elected in November, it’s clear that people close to him, including former officials, are gearing up for a second term that could go way further than even his very anti-abortion first term. According to Politico, a plan is underway for Trump to govern as a, quote, “Christian nationalist nation,” which could mean not just banning abortion, but, as Victoria pointed out, contraception, too, or many forms of contraception. A separate planning group being run out of the Heritage Foundation is also developing far-reaching plans about women’s reproductive health, including enforcement of the long-dormant 19th century Comstock Act, which we have talked about here many times before. But someone please remind us what the Comstock Act is and what it could mean.

Weber: I feel like you’re the expert on this. I feel like you should explain it.

Rovner: Oh boy. I don’t want to be the expert on the Comstock Act, but I guess I’ve become it. It’s actually my favorite tidbit about the Comstock Act is that it is not named after a congressman. It is named after basically an anti-smut crusader named Anthony Comstock in the late 1800s. And it bans the mailing of, I believe the phrase is “lewd or obscene” information, which in the late 1880s included ways to prevent pregnancy, but certainly also abortion. When the Supreme Court basically ruled that contraception was legal, which did not happen until the late 1960s — and early 1970s, actually —, the Comstock Act sort of ceased to be. And obviously then Roe v. Wade, it ceased to be.

But it is still in the books. It’s never been officially repealed, and there’s been a lot of chatter in anti-abortion movements about starting to enforce it again, which could certainly stop if nothing else, the distribution of the abortion pill in its tracks. And also it’s anything using the mail. So it could not just be the abortion pill, but anything that doctors use to perform abortions or to make surgical equipment — it seems that using Comstock, you could implement a national ban without ever having to worry about Congress doing anything. And that seems to be the goal here, is to do as much as they can without even having to involve Congress. Yes.

Pradhan: Julie, I’m waiting for the phrase “anti-smut crusader” to end up on a campaign sign or bumper sticker, honestly. I feel like we might see it. I don’t think this election has gotten nearly weird enough yet. So we still have nine months to go.

Rovner: Yeah. I’m learning way more about the Comstock Act than I really ever wanted to know. But meanwhile, Rachana, it does not take state or federal action to restrict access to reproductive health care. You have a story this week about the continuing expansion of Catholic hospitals and what that means for reproductive health care. Tell us what you found.

Pradhan: Well, yes, I would love to talk about our story. So myself and my colleague Hannah Recht, we started reporting the story, just for background, before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, obviously anticipating that that is what was going to happen. And our story really digs into, based on ample interviews with clinicians, other academic experts, reading lots of documents about what the ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care services, which is what all, any health facility, a hospital, a physician’s office, anything that deems itself Catholic, has to abide by these directives for care, and they follow church teaching. Which we were talking about fertility treatments and IVF earlier actually, so in vitro fertilization is also something that the Catholic Church teaches is immoral. And so that’s actually something that they oppose, which many people may not know that.

But other things that the ERDs [ethical and religious directives] so to speak, impact are access to contraception, access to surgeries that would permanently prevent pregnancy. So for women that would be removing or cinching your fallopian tubes, but also, for men, vasectomies. And then, of course, anything that constitutes what they would call a direct abortion. And that affects everything from care for ectopic pregnancies, how you can treat them, to managing miscarriages. The lead story or anecdote in our story is about a nurse midwife who I spoke with, who used to work at a Catholic hospital in Maryland and talked to me about, relayed this anecdote about, a patient who was about 19 or 20 weeks pregnant and had her water break prematurely.

At that point, her fetus was not viable and that patient did not want to continue her pregnancy, but the medical staff there, what they would’ve done is induce labor with the intent of terminating the pregnancy. And they were unable to do that because of ERDs. And so, we really wanted to look at it systemically, too. So we looked at that combined with state laws that protect, shield hospitals from liability when they oppose providing things like abortions or even sterilization procedures on religious grounds. And included fresh new data analysis on how many women around the country live either nearby to a Catholic hospital or only have Catholic hospitals nearby. So we thought it was important.

Rovner: That’s a little bit of the lead because there’s been so much takeover of hospitals by Catholic entities over the last, really, decade and a half or so, that women who often had a choice of Catholic hospital or not Catholic hospital don’t anymore. That Catholic hospital may be the only hospital anywhere around.

Pradhan: Right and if people criticize the story, which we’ve gotten some criticism over it, one of the refrains we’ll hear is, “Well, just go to a different hospital.” Well, we don’t live in a country where you can just pick any hospital you want to go to — even when you have a choice, insurance will dictate what’s in-network versus what’s not. And honestly, people just don’t know. They don’t know that a hospital has a religious affiliation at all, let alone that that religious affiliation could impact the care that you would receive. And so there’s been research done over the years showing the percentage of hospital beds that are controlled by Catholic systems, et cetera, but Hannah and I both felt strongly that that’s a useful metric to a point, but beds is not relatable to a human being. So we really wanted to boil it down to people and how many people we’re talking about who do not have other options nearby. How many births occur in Catholic hospitals so that you know those people do not have access to certain care if they deliver at these hospitals, that they would have in other places.

Rovner: It’s a continuing story. We’ll obviously post the link to it. Well, I also want to talk about age this week. Specifically the somewhat advanced age of our likely presidential candidates this year. President [Joe] Biden, currently age 81, and former President Trump, age 77. One thing voters of both parties seem to agree on is that both are generically too old, although voters in neither party seem to have alternative candidates in mind. My KFF Health News colleague Judy Graham has a really interesting piece on increasing ageism in U.S. society that the seniors we used to admire and honor we now scorn and ignore. Is this just the continuing irritation at the self-centeredness of the baby boomers or is there something else going on here that old people have become dispensable and not worth listening to? I keep thinking the “OK, boomer” refrain. It keeps ringing in my ears.

Weber: I mean, I think there’s a mix of things going on here. I mean, her piece was really fascinating because it also touched upon the fact — which all of us here reported on; Rachana and I wrote a story about this back in 2021 — on how nursing homes really have been abandoned to some extent. I mean, folks are not getting the covid vaccine. People are dying of covid, they die of the flu, and it’s considered a way of life. And there is almost an irritation that there would be any expectation that it would be any differently because it’s a “Don’t infringe upon my rights” thought. And I do think her piece was fascinating because it asks, “Are we really looking at the elderly?”

I mean, I think that’s very different when we talk about politicians. I mean, the Biden bit is a bit different. I mean, I think there is some frustration in the American populace with the age of politicians. I think that reached a bit of a boiling point with the Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein issue, that I think is continuing to boil over in the current presidential election. But that said, we’re hurtling towards an election with these two folks. I mean, that’s where we’re at. So I think they’re a bit different, but I do think there is a national conversation about age that is happening to some degree, but is not happening in consideration to others.

Well, I was going to say, I think the other aspect is that these people are in the public all the time, or they’re supposed to be. President Biden is giving speeches. Potential candidate President Trump, GOP main candidate, he’s in the spotlight all the time, too. And so you can actually see when they mess up sometimes. You can see potentially what people are saying is signs of aging. And so I think it’s different when they’re literally in front of your eyes and they’re supposed to be making decisions about the direction of this country, potentially. So I think it’s somewhat a valid conversation to have when the country is in their hands.

Rovner: Yeah, and obviously the presidency ages you. [Barack] Obama went in as this young, strong-looking guy and came out with very gray hair, and he was young when he went in. Bill Clinton, too, was young when he was elected and came out looking considerably older. And so Biden, if people have pointed out, looks a lot older now than he did when he was running back in 2020. But meanwhile, despite what voters and some special councils think — including the one who said that Biden was what a kindly old man with a bad memory — neuroscientists say that it’s actually bunk that age alone can determine how mentally fit somebody is, and that even if memory does start to decline, judgment and wisdom may improve as you age. Why is nobody in either party making this point? I mean, the people supporting Biden are just saying that he’s doing a good job and he deserves to continue doing a good job. I mean, talk about the elephant in the room and nobody’s talking about it at all with Trump.

Pradhan: Yeah, I mean, I think probably the short answer is that it’s not really as politically expedient to talk about those things. I thought it was really interesting. Yeah, I really appreciated Stat News had this really interesting Q&A article. And then also there was this opinion piece in The New York Times that, this line struck me so much about, again, both about Biden’s age and his memory. And this line I thought was so fascinating because it just is telling how people’s perceptions can change so much depending on the discourse. So it pointed out that Joe Biden is the same age as Harrison Ford, Paul McCartney, Martin Scorsese. He’s younger than Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, who is considered to be one of the shrewdest and smartest investors, I think, and CEOs of modern times. And no one is saying, “Well, they’re too old to be doing their jobs” or anything. I’m not trying to suggest that people who have concerns about both candidates’ age[s] are not valid, but I think we sometimes have to double-check why we might be being led to think that way, and when it’s not really the same standards are not applied across the board to people who are even older than they are.

Rovner: I do think that some of the frustration, I think, Lauren, you mentioned this, is that in recent years, the vast majority of leadership positions in the U.S. government have been held by people who are, shall we say, visibly old. I mean Nancy Pelosi is still in Congress, but she at least figured out that she needed to step down from being speaker because I think the three top leaders in the House were all in their either late 70s or early 80s. The Senate has long been the land of very old people because you get elected to a six-year term. I mean, Chuck Grassley is 90 now, is he not? Feinstein wasn’t even, I don’t think, the oldest member of the Senate. So I think it’s glaring and staring us in the face. Rachana, you wanted to add something before we moved on.

Pradhan: Well, I think probably, and a lot of that too is just I think probably a reflection of voters’ broader gripes or concerns about the fact that we have people who hold office for an eternity, to not exaggerate it. And so people want to see new leadership, new energy, and when you have public officeholders who hold these jobs for … they’re career politicians, and I think that that is frustrating to a lot of people. They want to see a new generation, even regardless of political party, of ideas and energy. And then when you have these octogenarians holding onto their seats and run over and over and over again, I think that that’s frustrating. And people don’t get energized about those candidates, especially when they’re running for president. They just don’t. So it’s a reflection of just, I think, broader concerns.

Knight: And I think one more thing too was, I mean, Sen. Feinstein died while she was in office. I mean, people also may be referencing Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, and it’s the question of, should you be holding onto a position that you may die in it, and not setting the way for the new person to take over and making that path available for the next people? Is that the best way to lead in whatever position you’re in? I think, again, Rachana said that’s frustrating for a lot of people.

Rovner: And I think what both parties have been guilty of, although I think Democrats even more than Republicans, is preparing people, making sure that that next generation is ready, that you don’t want to go from these people with age and wisdom and experience to somebody who knows nothing. You need those people coming up through the ranks. And I think there’s been a dearth of people coming up through the ranks lately, and I think that’s probably the big frustration.

Pradhan: I’m not sure if this is still true now, but I certainly remember, I think when Paul Ryan was speaker of the House, I remember the average age of the House Republican conference was significantly younger than that of Democrats. And they would highlight that. They would say, “Look, we are electing a new generation of leaders and look at these aging Democrats over here.” And that might still be true, but I certainly remember that that was something that they tried to capitalize on, oh-so-long ago.

Rovner: As we talked about last week, there are now a lot of those not-so-young Republicans, but not really old, who are just getting out because it is no fun anymore to be in Congress. Which is a good segue because … oh, go ahead.

Knight: Oh, I was just saying one thing Republicans do do in the House, at least they do have term limits on the chairmanships to ensure people do not hold onto those leadership positions forever. And Democrats do not have that. That’s at least in the House.

Rovner: But then you get the expertise walking out the door. It’s a double-edged sword.

Knight: Which is, not all the ones that are leaving have reached their term limits, which is the interesting thing actually. But yes, that expertise can walk out the door.

Rovner: Well, speaking of Congress, here in Washington, as I mentioned at the top, Congress is in recess, but when they come back, they will have I believe it is three days before the first raft of temporary spending bills expire. Victoria, is this the time that the government’s going to actually shut down, or are we looking at yet another round of short-term continuing resolutions? And at some point automatic cuts kick in, right?

Knight: Yeah, the eternal question that we’ve had all of this Congress, I think both sides do not want to shut down. I saw some reporting this morning that was saying [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer is talking to [House Speaker] Mike Johnson, but he also, Schumer did not want to commit to a CR [continuing resolution] yet either. So it’s possible, but we said that every time and they’ve pulled it off. I think they just know a shutdown is so, not even maybe necessarily politically toxic, but potentially —because I don’t know how much the public understands what that means …

Rovner: Because they don’t understand who’s at fault.

Knight: Right. Who’s at fault …

Rovner: … when it does shut down. They just know that the Social Security office is closed.

Knight: Right, but I just know they know it’s dysfunctional or it just can make things messy when that happens; it’s harder for agencies and things like that. So we’ll see. So the deadline is next Friday for the first set of bills. It’s just four bills then, and then the next deadline is March 8 for the other eight bills. There’s some talk that we may see a package over the weekend, but it’s Mike Johnson’s deciding moment. Again, he’s getting pressure from the House Freedom Caucus to push for either spending cuts or policy riders that include anti-abortion riders, anti-gender-affirming care, a lot. There’s a whole list of things that they sent yesterday they want in bills, and so he’s going to have to …

Rovner: Culture wars is the shorthand for a lot of those.

Knight: Yes, exactly. And so House Freedom Caucus sent a letter yesterday, and so Mike Johnson’s going to have to decide does he want to acquiesce to any House Freedom Caucus demands or does he want to work? But if he doesn’t want to do that, then he’s going to have to pass any funding bills with Democratic votes because he does not have enough votes with the Republicans alone, if Freedom Caucus people and people aligned in that direction don’t vote for any funding bills. If he does that, if he works with Democrats, then there is talk that they might file a motion to vacate him out of the speakership. So it’s the same problem that Kevin McCarthy had. The one thing going for Johnson is that he doesn’t have the baggage that Kevin McCarthy had, a lot of political baggage. A lot of people had ill will towards him, just built up over the years. Johnson doesn’t seem to have that as much, and also Republicans, do they want to be leadership-less again?

Rovner: Because that worked so well the first two times.

Knight: Right, so he has got to decide again who he wants to work with. And it doesn’t seem like we know yet how that’s going to go, and that will determine whether the government shuts down or not.

Rovner: But somebody also reminded me that on April 1, if they haven’t done full-year funding, that automatic cuts kick in. I had forgotten that. So I mean, they can’t just keep rolling these deadlines indefinitely. This presumably is the last time they can roll a deadline without having other ramifications.

Knight: Absolutely. And Freedom Caucus, actually, I think that’s partly why they don’t want to agree to something, because they want the 1% cuts across the board. So that was part of the deal made last year under Kevin McCarthy was, if they don’t come up with full funding bills by April 1, there will be a 1% cut put into place. And so the more hard-liners [are] like, “Great, we’re going to cut funding, so we want to do that.” And then Democrats don’t want that to happen. And so yeah, it’s the last time that they can potentially do a CR before that.

Rovner: Yeah, just a reminder, for those who are not keeping track, that April 1 is six months, halfway through the fiscal year for them to have not finished the fiscal year spending bills.

Knight: And one more note is that usually they’re starting on this coming year spending bills by this point in Congress. So we’re still working on FY24 bills. We should be working on FY25 bills already. So they’re already behind. It’s dysfunctional.

Rovner: I think it’s fair to say the congressional budget process has completely broken down. Well, moving on to “This Week in Medical Misinformation,” we have a case of doing well by doing no good. Lauren, tell us about your story looking into the profits that accrued to anti-vaccine and anti-science groups during the pandemic.

Weber: So I took a look at a bunch of tax records, and what I found is that four major nonprofits that rose to prominence during the covid pandemic by capitalizing on the spread of misinformation collectively gained more than $118 billion from 2020 to 2022. And were able to deploy that money to gain influence in statehouses, courtrooms, and communities across the country. And it’s a pretty staggering figure to tabulate all together. And what was particularly interesting is there was four of these different groups that I was directed to look at by experts in the field, and one of them includes Children’s Health Defense, which was founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and they received, in 2022, $23.5 million in contributions, grants, and other revenue. That was eight times what they got before the pandemic. And that kind of story was reflected in these other groups as well. And it just shows that the fair amount of money that they were able to collect during this time as they were promoting content and other things.

Rovner: Yeah, I mean literally misinformation pays. While we’re on this subject, I would also note that this week there’s a huge multinational study of 99 million people vaccinated against covid that confirmed previous studies showing an association between being vaccinated and developing some rare complications. But a number of stories, at least I thought, overstated the risks of the study that it actually identified. Most failed to include the context that almost every vaccine has the possibility of causing adverse reactions in some very small number of people. The question of course, when you’re evaluating vaccines, is if the benefit outweighs the benefit of protecting against whatever this disease or condition outweighs the risk of these rare side effects.

I would also point out that this is why the U.S. actually has something called the [National] Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which helps provide for people, particularly children, who experience rare complications to otherwise mandatory vaccines. Anyway, that is the end of my rant. I was just frustrated by the idea that yes, yes, we know vaccines sometimes have side effects. That’s the nature of vaccines. That’s one of the reasons we study them.

All right, anyway, that is the news for this week. Now it is time for our extra-credit segment. That’s when we each recommend a story we read this week we think you should read, too. As always, don’t worry if you miss it. We will post the links on the podcast page at kffhealthnews.org and in our show notes on your phone or other mobile device. Victoria, why don’t you go first this week?

Knight: So my extra credit this week is a story in ProPublica called “The Year After a Denied Abortion.” It’s by [photographer] Stacy Kranitz and [reporter] Kavitha Surana. And it was a very moving photo essay and story about a woman who was denied an abortion in Tennessee literally weeks to a month after Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, and this was in July 2022. She got pregnant and was denied an abortion. And so it followed her through the next year of her life after that happened. And in Tennessee, it’s one of the strictest abortion bans in the nation. Abortion is banned and there are very rare exceptions. And so this woman, Mayron Michelle Hollis, she already had some children that had been taken out of her care by the state, and so she was already fighting custody battles and then got pregnant. And Tennessee is also a state that doesn’t have a very robust safety-net system, so it follows her as she has a baby that’s born prematurely, has a lot of health issues, doesn’t have a lot of state programs to help her.

She was afraid to go through unemployment because she had had issues with that before. The paperwork situation’s really tough. There’s just so much stress involved also with the situation. She eventually ends up kind of relapsing, starting drinking too much alcohol, and she ends up in jail at the end of the story. And so it just talks about how if there is not a robust safety net in a state, if you’re kind of forced to have a pregnancy that you maybe are not able to take care of, it can be really tough financially and psychologically and tough for the mother and the child. So it was a really moving story and there were photos following her through that year.

Rovner: Lauren.

Weber: I wanted to shout out my colleague who I actually sit next to, David Ovalle, who is wonderful at The Washington Post. He wrote an article called “They Take Kratom to Ease Pain or Anxiety. Sometimes, Death Follows.” And, as our addiction reporter for the Post, he did a horribly depressing but wonderful job actually calculating how many kratom deaths or deaths associated with kratom have happened in recent years. And what he found through requests is that at least 4,100 deaths in 44 states and D.C. were linked to kratom between 2020 and 2022, which is public service journalism at its best. I mean, I think people are clear that there is more risks with this, but I think that it’s emerging actually how those risks are. And he catalogs through the hard numbers, which is often what it requires for folks to pay attention, that this is something that is interactive with other medications which is causing death, in some cases, on death certificates. So pretty moving story, he talked to a lot of the families of folks that have died and it really makes you wonder about the state of regulation around kratom.

Rovner: Yeah, and then, I mean, all food diet supplements that are basically unregulated by the FDA because Congress determined in the 1990s that they should be unregulated because the supplement industry lobbied them very heavily and we will talk about that at some other time. Rachana.

Pradhan: My extra credit is a story in Politico by Megan Messerly. It’s titled “Red States Hopeful for a 2nd Trump Term Prepare to Curtail Medicaid.” The short version is work requirements are in, again. There was an effort previously that Republicans wanted to impose employment as a condition of receiving Medicaid benefits, and then they were very quickly, a couple of states, were sued. Only one program really got off the ground, Arkansas. And what happened as a result is because of the paperwork burdens and other things, thousands of people lost coverage. So currently the Biden administration, of course, is not OK at all with tying any type of work, volunteer service, you name it, to Medicaid benefits. But I think Republicans would be — the story talks about how Republicans would be eager to go and pursue that policy push again and curtail enrollment as a result of that.

So I thought that was, it’s an interesting political story. One thing it did make me wonder though, just as an aside is, there’s also been discussion on the flip side, the states in the story, which focus on South Dakota and Louisiana, states that many of them have already expanded coverage to cover the ACA [Affordable Care Act] population, but there are also still states that have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA’s income thresholds. And those conservative states might find it slightly more palatable to do so if you allow them to impose these types of conditions on the program. And so I think we will see what happens.

Rovner: Although, as we talked about not too long ago, Georgia, one of the states that has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act now has a work requirement for Medicaid. And they’ve gotten something in the neighborhood, I believe, of like 2,700 people who’ve signed up out of a potential 100,000 people who could be covered if they actually expanded Medicaid. So another space that we will watch.

Well, my extra credit this week is from Stat News and, warning, it’s super nerdy. It’s called “New CMS Rules Will Throttle Access Researchers Need to Medicare, Medicaid Data.” It’s by Rachel Werner, who’s a physician researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and it’s about a change recently announced by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services that will make it more difficult and more expensive for researchers to work with the program’s data, of which there is a lot. Since the new policy was announced earlier this month, according to CMS, in response to an increase in data breaches, I’ve heard from a lot of researchers who are worried that critical research won’t get done and that new researchers won’t get trained if these changes are implemented because only certain people will have access to the data because you’ll have to pay every time somebody else gets access to the data. Again, it’s an incredibly nerdy issue, but also really important. So the department is taking comment on this and we’ll see if they actually follow through.

OK, that is our show. As always, if you enjoy the podcast, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. We’d appreciate it if you left us a review; that helps other people find us, too. Special thanks as always to our technical guru, Francis Ying, and our editor, Emmarie Huetteman. As always, you can email us your comments or questions. We’re at whatthehealth@kff.org, or you can still find me at X, @jrovner. Rachana, where are you?

Pradhan: Still on X, hanging on, @rachanadpradhan.

Rovner: Victoria.

Knight: I’m also on X @victoriaregisk.

Rovner: Lauren?

Weber: Still on X @LaurenWeberHP.

Rovner: I think people have come sort of slithering back. We will be back in your feed next week. Until then, be healthy.

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