A group of a dozen Senate Democrats is calling on the Department of Health & Human Services to answer questions about “deep concerns” they have with the appointment of Roger Severino as assistant secretary for civil rights, citing “bigoted statements” he made against LGBT people.
In a two-page letter obtained by the Washington Blade, the 12 Senate Democrats say past statements Severino made against LGBT people, including about transgender people’s access to transition-related care, as well as his comments against Planned Parenthood and women’s access to abortion “raise serious questions about his ability to oversee the Office of Civil Rights.”
“Mr. Severino has a long history of making bigoted statements toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and attacking women’s access to health care services and reproductive rights,” the letter says. “His appointment raises deep concerns about the employment decisions and hiring practices being established by the Trump Administration.”
Signing the letter are Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Upon news that Severino — who until recently was an analyst and blogger with the anti-LGBT Heritage Foundation — had landed an appointment as HHS assistant secretary for civil rights, LGBT rights supporters denounced the move as tantamount to appointing the proverbial fox to guard a henhouse.
In the role, Severino is charged with defending the civil rights of Americans in health care, including transgender people. But at the Heritage Foundation, Severino wrote blog posts demeaning transgender people and opposing the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure they have access to transition-related care.
After the Obama administration issued a regulation ensuring non-discrimination in health care for transgender people under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex, Severino wrote the rule would “create special privileges based on gender identity.”
Because the regulation ensures transgender people access to gender reassignment surgery, he wrote it would “force doctors to perform sex-reassignment surgeries,” erroneously suggesting it would require doctors to perform the procedure even when medically unnecessary.
It should be noted U.S. Judge Reed O’Connor issued an injunction in December barring the U.S. government from enforcing the regulation, which not only barred discrimination against transgender people, but also women who have had abortions. The U.S. Justice Department missed a deadline under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appeal that decision to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
As cited in the letter, Severino also came out in opposition to the lawsuit filed by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch against North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which barred cities from enacting pro-LGBT ordinances and transgender people from using the restroom in bathroom and government buildings consistent with their gender identity. (A replacement law signed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, keeps certain elements of the discriminatory measure in place.)
“The radical left is using government power to coerce everyone, including children, into pledging allegiance to a radical new gender ideology over and above their right to privacy, safety, and religious freedom,” Severino wrote.
The letter from Senate Democrats also takes issue with Severino’s support for Kim Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., who instituted a “no licenses” policy in her office after the U.S. Supreme Court issued an order granting same-sex couples the right to obtain marriage licenses nationwide.
In addition to citing concerns about Severino’s writings on LGBT people, Senate Democrats also raised concerns about his opposition to access to abortion.
Severino, as the letter notes, objected to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against a Texas anti-abortion law and accused Planned Parenthood of “every trick in the book to get federal money by trying to pretend that its core business is anything but industrial-scale abortion.”
As a result of Severino’s appointment and past writings, the Senate Democrats ask HHS to respond to four questions about his appointment by a deadline of April 21:
1. How does the Department plan to promote a diverse and inclusive workforce free of prejudice or malice?
2. What are the Department’s vetting procedures for political appointees?
3. What are the Department’s plans to handle reports of inappropriate communications or behavior from staff?
4. Will Mr. Severino, as well as any other department appointee who has worked against the ACA’s nondiscrimination protections, be asked to recuse him- or herself from any decisions related to the enforcement of Section 1557?
The Washington Blade has placed a request with HHS seeking comment on the Senate Democrats’ letter.
Gay doctor elected AMA president-elect
Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld joined organization 22 years ago
Physicians and medical students have elected Wisconsin-based anesthesiologist Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld as the first openly gay president-elect of the American Medical Association (AMA).
Ehrenfeld was elected June 14 at the AMA House of Delegates’ annual meeting.
“Well, it’s certainly just an amazing feeling to know that you’ve got the confidence of your colleagues from such a broad array of practice types of modalities and perspectives,” Ehrenfeld told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “The association is a very diverse and increasingly diverse organization, and that’s a good thing. It’s more representative of the country and to see such broad support for a vision to move forward was really sort of heartening for me.”
The anesthesiologist and LGBTQ health expert will also serve as the first openly gay AMA president when he steps into the position later this month.
“When I joined the AMA 22 years ago, roughly, I didn’t think it was possible that a gay person could be the AMA president. And certainly 175 years ago, when the AMA was founded, that felt like something that wouldn’t have been possible,” Ehrenfeld said. “And so, to look at how the association, how medicine, health professional organizations have evolved, it’s pretty remarkable when you look at what that has looked like, and that’s a reflection of society in general. But certainly, you know, another pink ceiling has been shattered.”
Ehrenfeld previously served on the AMA’s Board of Trustee’s Executive Committee. He also worked on the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians; a long-term project that was unveiled at the annual meeting.
“A big component of that is helping physicians prepare the health system so that we can make sure that we can renew our commitment to achieving optimal health for all,” Ehrenfeld said. “To do that, we have to make sure that we prioritize the needs of physicians to improve patient care.”
Ehrenfeld is an associate dean and tenured professor of anesthesiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and has advocated for issues affecting multiple marginalized communities, such as transgender representation in the military. He emphasized the importance of diversifying the medical field to ensure better service for patients.
“We need folks from every community but particularly marginalized communities to step forward and enter the profession. That’s how patients get better care,” Ehrenfeld said “There’s data that when we have a more diverse healthcare workforce, and when we’re a more diverse community, that those health disparities inequities, actually start to go away.”
Roe leak stokes fears that LGBTQ rights are now at heightened risk
Legal experts diverse on degree of threat to marriage
Fears that same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ rights could be on the chopping block are at a new high after a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that would explicitly overturn precedent in Roe. v. Wade, although the degree of perceived danger differs among legal observers.
Although language in the leaked draft by U.S. Associate Justice Samuel Alito, which was published late Monday by Politico and confirmed as “authentic” by the Supreme Court, specifically distances the potential ruling from Obergefell v. Hodges, the general reasoning against finding unenumerated rights in the U.S. Constitution could apply to challenges to the landmark 2015 marriage decision.
Karen Loewy, senior counsel for the LGBTQ group Lambda Legal, told the Washington Blade if the draft decision were to become final it would “have no good implications” for either the Obergefell or Lawrence decisions.
“The analysis that Justice Alito has laid out really calls into question the sort of underlying liberty and dignity jurisprudence that really was the underpinning of cases like Lawrence and Obergefell,” Loewy said. “It requires a really cramped vision of what is constitutionally protected, that is tied to histories of oppression that are really, really concerning.”
Alito obliterates long-standing precedent, as defined in the 1973 Roe. v. Wade decision and subsequently affirmed in the 1992 decision in the Planned Parenthood v. Casey, finding a woman’s right to have an abortion is protected under the 14th Amendment.
“We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled,” Alito writes. “The Constitution makes no references to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely — the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.”
Alito makes clear for the Supreme Court to find any unenumerated rights under the 14th Amendment, the right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”
Such an analysis would directly impact LGBTQ rights found under the 14th Amendment. In fact, three separate times over the course of the draft opinion, Alito compares the right to abortion to rights for LGBTQ people as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Those references, however, aren’t to threaten those decisions, but to bolster the case for overturning precedent as established by Roe and limit the impact of the draft opinion.
“Roe’s defenders characterize the abortion right as similar to the rights recognized in past decisions involving matters such as intimate sexual relations, contraception, and marriage,” Alito writes, “but abortion is fundamentally different, as both Roe and Casey acknowledged, because it destroys what those decisions called ‘fetal life’ and what the law now before us describes as an ‘un-born human being.'”
In another instance, Alito includes Obergefell and Lawrence among a multitude of cases in a multi-page footnote giving examples of where the Supreme Court has decided to overturn precedent, which the draft opinion would do for Roe v. Wade. Another time, Alito rejects arguments from the U.S. solicitor general that abortion and marriage are connected, asserting “our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right.”
Loewy, however, said the fundamental nature of the draft opinion, despite Alito’s rejection that abortion is comparable to LGBTQ rights, undermines that analysis no matter how many times he articulates it.
“The third time is where he offers a fig leaf saying, ‘This analysis is just about abortion rights. It’s not about anything else,’ and so suggests that it would leave untouched a case like Obergefell, when the analysis that he has offered in this opinion clearly leads to the opposite result,” Loewy said.
Indeed, the sweeping nature of Alito’s reasoning against finding unenumerated rights under the Constitution has led some observers to believe the draft was written by Alito alone and without the input of the other eight justices, which could mean the final decision would be a consensus different from the opinion that was leaked. (Upon publishing the leaked opinion, however, Politico did report the Supreme Court has five justices who will vote in favor of overturning Roe, which means without question such a ruling has a majority.)
Not all observers see the opinion in the same way and are interpreting Alito’s references to Obergefell and Lawrence as less threatening.
Dale Carpenter, a conservative law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written about LGBTQ rights, downplayed the idea the draft opinion against Roe would be a prelude to overturning Obergefell based on Alito’s words denying the connection.
“The opinion tries to make it clear that it does not affect other unenumerated rights, like Lawrence and Obergefell and other fundamental rights cases, like contraceptive cases and other marriage cases,” Carpenter said. “So that’s comforting, I think, to LGBT rights advocates. Second, it says that there’s a fundamental distinction between those other cases and the abortion cases in that the abortion cases involve fetal life or potential life. And so, that I think, is a ground for setting a difference between them.”
Carpenter, however, conceded the mode of analysis in the opinion overturning Roe “is not very friendly to unenumerated rights like marriage and sexual intimacy,” so while Obergefell and Lawrence may face no immediate threat “there might be a longer term concern about decisions like those.”
A follow-up ruling from the Supreme Court rolling back the right for same-sex couples to marry would be consistent with a 2020 dissent from Alito and U.S. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas essentially declaring war on the Obergefell decision, urging justices to revisit the case to make greater accommodations for religious objections.
Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the marriage equality case and now a candidate for a seat in the Ohio state legislature, said in a statement after the leak of the draft Alito opinion he was fearful that the same forces seeking to overturn precedent for abortion rights would go after LGBTQ rights next.
“It’s also concerning that some members of the extreme court are eager to turn their attention to overturning marriage equality,” Obergefell said. “The sad part is in both these cases, five or six people will determine the law of the land and go against the vast majority of Ohioans and Americans who overwhelmingly support a woman’s right to make her own health decisions and a couple’s right to be married.”
The Supreme Court, of course, couldn’t willy nilly reverse the Obergefell decision, which would require some case or controversy to wind its way through the judicial system before justices could revisit the ruling. Mostly likely, such a hypothetical case would be a state passing a law banning same-sex marriage or simply declaring it would no longer allow same-sex couples to wed in defiance of the Obergefell decision.
No state, however, is engaged in a serious effort to challenge marriage rights for same-sex couples. The last such challenge was in 2020 and from the solicitor general of Indiana, who was seeking to challenge the decision on the basis of birth certificates for the children of women in same-sex marriages. Even the current 6-3 conservative majority on the court declined to hear the case.
Additionally, as polls demonstrate, the nation is in a different place with abortion rights compared to the right for same-sex couples to marry. A recent Fox News poll found six in 10 registered voters still think the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold Roe v. Wade, but more than half of those responders favored banning abortions after 15 weeks. Comparatively, a Gallup poll in September 2021 found support for marriage equality is at a record high of 70 percent and, for the first time, a majority of Republicans back same-sex marriage.
A question also remains about what the draft opinion means for decisions on LGBTQ rights that have yet to come before the Supreme Court but may come at a later time, such as a legal challenge to the “Don’t Say Gay” measure recently signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Carpenter said he doesn’t think the observers can glean anything about a potential ruling on the “Don’t Say Gay” law based on the fact the legal challenge would be different than challenges to abortion or same-sex marriage.
“That kind of challenge would more than likely be brought under the First Amendment,” Carpenter said. “And I don’t see the First Amendment being affected by the Dobbs decision. I suppose that someone might want to bring an Equal Protection challenge to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law in Florida, but it just doesn’t seem like it would have an immediate impact on even that kind of claim.”
Md. biotech company’s HIV cure project clears first hurdle
‘We all have something to be excited about’
American Gene Technologies, the Rockville, Md., biotech company, has announced that the first patient to receive its genetically engineered treatment therapy aimed at curing people of HIV/AIDS encountered no adverse side effects from the treatment.
In an Aug. 2 statement, AGT said that based on the data obtained from Patient One in its Phase 1 human trial of its HIV treatment called AGT103-T, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Data and Safety Monitoring Board voted unanimously to allow AGT to continue its HIV cure program without modification.
“The AGT103-T pipeline is a therapy for treating HIV disease,” the company’s statement says. “The therapy is designed to induce durable viral suppression by delivering therapeutic genes to the recipient’s immune cells,” it says. “The resulting immune cells are expected to survive attack by HIV and durably suppress the virus at undetectable levels without the need for antiretroviral treatment.”
The thumbs up decision by the Data and Safety Monitoring Board allows the company to continue its clinical trial with more participants to further confirm the HIV treatment’s safety outcome. The next phase in the trials will be to determine the treatment’s effectiveness in fully protecting the human body from HIV.
“We have six more patients,” said AGT CEO Jeff Galvin in referring to the patients who will be tested for possible adverse side effects in the coming weeks. Galvin spoke at a July 29 gathering to celebrate the success of Patient One at AGT’s headquarters offices in Rockville.
“If this works, they will be permanently immune from HIV,” he said. “Just think what this can do with the epidemic. We all have something to be excited about,” he told the gathering of about 100 people.
“Keep your fingers crossed. Let’s all keep hoping and praying,” Galvin said. “We will know by the middle of next year,” he said, referring to when the human trials will likely determine whether the AGT103-T treatment, which has successfully stopped HIV from infecting human cells in laboratory experiments, will work just as effectively on people with HIV.
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