HIV/AIDS: Supreme Court Hears Disability Case
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday over whether the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to persons infected with HIV. "In a lively debate," the Chicago Tribune reports, "several of the justices appeared inclined to agree, though reluctantly," that the law does not apply in Abbott v. Bragdon, a case involving a Maine dentist who refused to fill an HIV-infected patient's cavity in his office. However, several justices "were quick to challenge" the dentist's refusal to perform the procedure (Greenburg, 3/31).
The New York Times reports that the justices "expressed puzzlement or concern over almost every aspect of the case" (Greenhouse, 3/31). "Gauging by their reaction," the Washington Post reports, "the justices are struggling with the confluence" of AIDS discrimination and the ADA (Biskupic, 3/31). The Los Angeles Times reports that the high court "appeared closely divided" (Savage, 3/31). The justices "seemed to struggle" over whether inability to reproduce due to HIV infection counts as a disability, as the plaintiff contends (Lowe, Columbus Dispatch, 3/31). "Several justices indicated that they have trouble with" the argument about reproductive activity, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Freedburg, 3/31).
High Court Speaks
The Chicago Tribune reports that much of the hearing "focused on how HIV affected the act of reproduction and whether that was enough to bring people with the virus under the ADA." The plaintiff argued that she should be considered disabled under the ADA because she is unable to take part in "a major life activity." However, the dentist's attorneys argued that Congress intended the ADA to cover such activities as "breathing and walking, because those functions are crucial for a person to be independent" (3/31). Justice David Souter said reproduction was not an activity vital to survival and that the plaintiff placed a "moral limitation" on herself not to reproduce, the Washington Post reports. Justice Antonin Scalia also maintained that the plaintiff was not under "a true physical limit" to reproduce. But Justice Stephen Breyer indicated that "reproduction and sexual relations might be as central to some people's lives as walking and talking." Because the ADA clearly covers those with AIDS, Justice Anthony Kennedy asked whether the law should cover those with HIV because they "inevitably will have AIDS in a few years" (3/31).
Letter Of The Law
"Clinton administration lawyers, joined by the American Medical Association and several AIDS activist groups, sided with Abbott and urged the court to read the statute in line with its broad purpose," the Los Angeles Times reports. However, the newspaper notes that the Supreme Court in recent years has made it its practice "to read laws narrowly, based on their words rather than on the intent of Congress" (3/31). The American Dental Association is siding with the dentist, saying "people with HIV should not be considered disabled" (Washington Post, 3/31). The defendant, Dr. Randon Bragdon, "defended himself by saying he is willing to treat people with AIDS, but only in the right medical setting." He said, "What is at stake is the ability of individual physicians to make their own decisions as to what is safe for him or his patients" (San Francisco Chronicle, 3/31).