HIV/AIDS: Supreme Court To Hear Disabilities Case
The Supreme Court today "hears oral arguments in a landmark case that asks justices, for the first time, to define the boundaries of the Americans With Disabilities Act," the San Francisco Examiner reports (Krieger, 3/29). "Legal experts say this is the first case involving HIV ... to make it to the nation's highest court," the Hartford Courant reports (Remez, 3/30). According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the case asks the Supreme Court "to decide several important questions," including whether or not the ADA, which covers AIDS, also covers people with HIV who have no symptoms of the disease. The court must also answer whether HIV-infected people are "disabled" and what exactly a "disability" is, and it must decide whether to "defer to medical professionals who think it too risky to treat a patient with a contagious disease -- or trust the opposing opinions of public health professionals." The Inquirer reports that the court's decision, "expected by July, could affect doctors, dentists and other providers of health care, as well as cost-conscious health insurers, employers and an array of people with diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, tuberculosis, HIV or other serious impairments who display no symptoms" (Epstein, 3/30).
The case, Bragdon v. Abbott, was brought by an HIV-infected Maine woman who sued her dentist for refusing to treat her in his office. The suit argues that HIV infection is a "disability" because it severely limits the plaintiff's ability to reproduce. Under the 1990 ADA law, people with "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities" are protected, but the law does not stipulate specific diseases for coverage. The Examiner notes that a "narrow ruling" in the plaintiff's favor "could mean that" the ADA would be extended "only to people who fit her atypical definition of disabled: HIV-infected women of child-bearing age." This, the Examiner reports, "would leave HIV-infected children and men vulnerable to discrimination." A broad ruling, however, "would protect those whose illnesses may not be apparent, but are real nonetheless" (Krieger, 3/29).
AIDS Advocates' Fears
The Christian Science Monitor reports that HIV-advocacy groups "are concerned that a broad Supreme Court ruling -- one that allows individual doctors and dentists to decide whom to treat, free from any guidelines -- could result in a reduced quality of medical care" for HIV/AIDS patients. "We're hoping a message will be sent to all health care providers, that even though someone discloses an HIV diagnosis, they have a right to the same treatment in the most affordable manner," said Eastern Maine AIDS Network Executive Director Denis Cranson (Marquand, 3/30). But if the court does consider AIDS' impact on a woman's reproductive health a disability, "there would be huge consequences in the workplace," USA Today reports. "If the court says reproduction is a major life activity, you could apply the law to issues of conception, fertility, the ability to carry a child to term, even arguably, the ability to raise a child," notes Equal Employment Advisory Council attorney Ann Reesman (Bayles, 3/30).