Saturday, May 25, 2013
Is a picture worth 1,000 words in a law school class? My experiment with visual aids
In my year-long visit at Yale Law School this Fall and Spring, I felt free to experiment with new teaching ideas. If they fell flat, I would have skipped town in just a few months, my reputation (such as it is) intact at my home institution. If it succeeded, I could take my new technique back with me. So, using my Yalies as guinea pigs, I used projected diagrams, pictures, and text as a teaching tool for the first time in my career.
My basic goal was to make doctrinal relationships, legal and political history, and legal text more intelligible by representing it visually in different modes -- color, shape, movement, or images generally. My prime directive was to adhere to Edward Tufte's principles: For instance, avoid "chartjunk," and never use bulleted text that you read from a screen. Within this capacious constraints, I tried a wide array of images and diagrams -- decision trees and flow charts, Venn Diagrams, statutory text in multiple colors, photos galore, and some often hokey but hopefully memorable visual representations of causal and doctrinal relationships.
My verdict? In anonymous surveys with a decent response rate, my constitutional law section (70+ members) seemed to like the slides. Many printed them out as guides during the final exam. My own sense: The pictures, if sufficiently simple and memorable, helped clarify ideas or narratives that had previously left some significant portion of the class baffled and frustrated. After the jump, I will provide some samples and invite you to share your comments on whether you think that these sorts of visual aids help and how they might be improved.
Curves in the upper level
Jessie raises some good issues about the use of curves. I agree with the commenters who argue that grades are inherently comparative and relative, so I am generally good with using curves.
I want to ask a slightly different question about using curves in upper-level classes. At least arguably, the curve's signaling and weed-out functions are gone, at least as to smaller, niche non-core classes, particularly with respect to 3Ls in their final semester. And smaller class size means that the mandatory low end may be one student forced to get a C-. Certainly the sample size may be too small to get a "natural" bell curve. Upper-level curves tend to be higher than 1L curves (fewer mandatory low grades, more mandatory high grades, higher median, whatever). But even if we accept curves in the first year, are they justified after that, especially as to the mandatory low end? At what enrollment point should the curve kick-in--15 students? 25 students?
Friday, May 24, 2013
"Sport as Speech" and Non-sport as Speech
I just finished reading Sport as Speech, a new paper by Genevieve Lakier (currently a law clerk on the Sixth Circuit); Lakier argues that spectator sports are expressive activities entitled to First Amendment protection (or at least First Amendment scrutiny of any regulations). It is an interesting notion that I had not thought of, although if she is right, it certainly strengthens my arguments about fan speech.
Two further thoughts on the paper.
1) Lakier takes on prior scholarhip and case law (notably a 2002 student comment in Yale LJ) arguing that sport is protected only to the extent it is close to being a dance or theatrical performance--for example, gymnastics, diving, and figure skating. These are the events that I have argued are not sport because the results are determined by evaluating the intrinsic merit of the athletic skills performed, as opposed to sport, where the result of that performance. In other words, under this approach (which Lakier rejects), non-sport is expressive, but sport is not expressive. So there is another reason to bother defining what qualifies as sport.
2) Lakier expressly limits her argument only to spectator sports, arguing that the expressive component of sport comes from players performing for a crowd. But I wonder if that cuts her case short. She relies a lot on the similarity between sport and other conduct widely recognized as expressive, notably music and dance. But those activities enjoy First Amendment protection even if not done for an audience; a prohibition on dancing in private or when no one is watching (think Footloose) would violate the First Amendment. So if basketball is expressive when played for a crowd, why not when it's ten people playing in an empty gym or playground or even one person playing in the driveway?
Trouble with the Curve
Though I was taken by surprise by the extent to which my last post touching on the topic of grading provoked rather strong responses, I am now presenting a proposition that I very much hope and assume will provoke controversy. Here it is: There is no (as in, none whatsoever) pedagogical justification for the traditional law school curve, and it should be abolished.
Here are my problems with the curve -- by which I mean a strict curve requiring x% As, x% A-, etc. all the way down to the lowest grades, and not something like a "target mean grade." First, it corresponds to nothing at all. I'm no statistics expert, but even if there is reason to think that students somehow naturally fall out on such a bell curve if you take a large enough sample, I'm pretty sure there's no way any first-year section is actually large enough or diverse enough in its talents to ensure that the curve will be accurate in every case or even most cases.
Second, the curve hides and fails to discourage poor teaching. We should be trying to bring every student in our class up to a fairly high level (although that is not going to happen, of course, with every student). But whether or not most or all students reach whatever we perceive to be the basic level of competence we are shooting for (call that level of competence a "B"), we have to assign a certain percentage of students grades below that level. And in fact, it's better -- or certainly no worse -- if a certain number of students don't reach that level of competence, because then we can justifiably assign them grades below that level. And when students come to see us wanting some justification of their grades, we really don't need to (and in some cases can't) give them any explanation other than, "you got that grade, not necessarily because you deserved it, but because other people did better than you." It doesn't require us to think about what a "B" really signifies, or whether there is any consistency across courses or years in terms of the grades we give.
Now let me outline what I think might be some traditional justifications: First, curves protect against grade inflation. This is undoubtedly true, but it can be accomplished with the far less arbitrary system, such as a target or maximum mean grade for a course.
Second, I suppose one could argue that grades are inherently arbitrary and correspond to nothing in reality anyway. In other words, the only thing a grade ever meaningfully represents (or perhaps more modestly, is ever meant to represent in the law school context) is one's performance relative to others who happen to be in that same class. But this strikes me as somewhat cynical. I doubt many of us fully accept this view. Maybe employers see it that way to some degree. But if employers' expectations are driving the curve, I would first point out that this is still not a pedagogical justification. What's more, even if this is a reasonable defense of having a curve, it has to be weighed against the unfairness of using an arbitrary curve in the first place--one which does not necessarily correspond even to the differing levels of relative ability among students (i.e., even if you can come up with a relative ranking of exam scores that accurately reflects relative strength, which is what employers most likely really care about, you are still required to draw an arbitrary line between a B+ and a B exam, for example, which doesn't necessarily correspond to a meaningful drop-off in quality).
Finally, the other justifications are .... well, I have no idea. I'm out of them. I'm stumped. Can anyone defend the curve?
Non-State Law Beyond Enforcement
So I've been a bit behind in posting as I slowly drag myself toward the grading finish line (aside: thanks to all my Prawfs' Facebook friends who have been regularly taunted me by noting how long ago they finished grading. I get it - I'm slow). But today I wanted to post again about non-state law, focusing on what it might mean to be law even when the law in question is not enforced.
As an example of this dynamic, I've been reading some advanced chapters of Chaim Saiman's forthcoming book Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law (Princeton U. Press). One of the key questions Saiman tussles with in the book - and also addressed in his public Gruss Lecture in Talmudic Law - is why there are multiple Jewish legal doctrines which the Talmud expressly states are not intended to be enforced in any circumstance. As examples, Saiman notes how regarding doctrines like the "rebellious son" and the "rebellious city," the Talmud states the "law never did, nor ever will apply." In response to questions as to why there exist laws that are not intended to be enforced, the Talmud simply responds "To study and receive reward."
Saiman's book interrogates this response, exploring what it means to have "studied law" as opposed to "enforced law" - and by extension what it means to be unenforced law. Much of his analysis revolves around contrasting philosophical inquiry and legal inquiry, with the latter funneling the reader into concrete application of core values (in ways that abstract philosophical inquiry often does not) and requiring the reader to inhabit a particular religious world that can more effectively convey principles and values.
In this way, his project is a quintessential example of how the discursive practice of law - and not merely the enforcement of law - serves a unique legal purpose. It is the concrete and detailed method of legal analysis the pulls the reader into the legal text - much like a novel pulls the reader into a narrative - that captures a key facet of how Jewish Law functions as law (one hears strong elements of Robert Cover in Saiman's analysis). Moreover, it also provides important guidance to thinking about the internal elements (as opposed to external manifestations) of law and legal practice - a topic which I hope to explore a bit further in my next post.
How did Scalia's anti-federalism bluster in City of Arlington v. FCC go unnoticed by six justices?
Over the past decade, Justice Scalia has issued some oddly crabbed definitions of "federalism," but he has not always carried a majority for such sentiments. Unfortunately, his majority opinion in City of Arlington v. FCC, handed down this week, repeated the notion that federalism is irrelevant whenever Congress has "expressly" regulated some field. Consider the following paragraph at page 14 of the slip opinion:
[T]his case has nothing to do with federalism. Section 332(c)(7)(B)(ii) explicitly supplants state authority by requiring zoning authorities to render a decision “within a reasonable period of time,” and the meaning of that phrase is indisputably a question of federal law. We rejected a similar faux-federalism argument in the Iowa Utilities Board case, in terms that apply equally here: “This is, at bottom, a debate not about whether the States will be allowed to do their own thing, but about whether it will be the FCC or the federal courts that draw the lines to which they must hew.” 525 U. S., at 379, n. 6. These lines will be drawn either by unelected federal bureaucrats, or by unelected (and even less politically accountable) federal judges. “[I]t is hard to spark a passionate ‘States’ rights’
debate over that detail.” Ibid.
This paragraph is rich with a kind of calculated confusion about the meaning of "federalism," confusion that is capable of a lot of mischief if it is taken seriously in future opinions. After the jump, I will suggest that the vision of federalism implied by this paragraph suggests why the some have accused the SCOTUS of a pro-business bias. The pro-business effect is real, but the theory of federalism is entirely principled, having been set forth by Caleb Nelson in an influential law review article and only one vote short of gaining a SCOTUS majority in PLIVA v. Mensing.
The problem with Scalia's paragraph is not that it could not be justified on principled grounds but rather that Scalia almost defiantly refuses to provide any such justification, instead engaging in pure rhetorical bluster. Kennedy refused to join Justice Thomas' endorsement of Caleb's theory in Mensing: Why did he fall for the same theory when Scalia smuggled it into this offhand paragraph?
This blog post is actually a blatant attempt at crowdsourcing ideas, but hopefully one you will also find useful. When I was a first year law student, my "skills training" included one stab at writing a memo to a partner in a law firm, and one appellate brief. They were graded, at least, so one was required to take the exercise seriously, but that was it. There should be room for a bit more.
I teach contracts in the second semester here at FSU. I have four credit hours, so I already feel a bit pressed for time in covering everything that must be covered. This year, as I mentioned in a previous post, I added two memos, one graded, and one ungraded, that included a client counseling element as well as legal analysis. That was good, but I'm not sure it was quite right.
What "skills training" have you added to your courses, first year or otherwise? What would you most likely add first, if you could? Contract drafting? Statute drafting? Client counseling letters? Pleadings and responses? Dispute resolution? Negotiation? And what's stopping you?
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Gruesomeness and the First Amendment
As one who is interested in both women's reproductive rights and the First Amendment, I find issues at their intersection of those protections to be inherently fascinating. One such set of issues surrounds abortion protests, and a particularly thorny question under that broad rubric involves the permissibility of restrictions on the display of gruesome or graphic images of dismembered fetuses. Usually, such arguably content-basedrestrictions, which appear to raise First Amendment concerns, are justified as protecting children from the disturbing imagery.
Now, it appears the formidable Eugene Volokh has filed a cert petition in a case involving just such a restriction, in the form of a state-court injunction against "displaying large posters or similar displays depicting gruesome images of mutilated fetuses or dead bodies in a manner reasonably likely to be viewed by children under 12 years of age." The permissibility of restrictions like this has been the subject of a circuit split, and the Supreme Court is set to discuss the petition at its May 30 conference.
A few random thoughts follow the jump:
Police Body Cams
This afternoon, I appeared on a HuffPost Live discussion (hosted by Mike Sacks of First-on-First fame) of police use of body cameras to record public stops and interactions. During closing arguments in the trial challenging NYPD policies with respect to Terry stops, District Judge Shira Scheindlin said she was "intrigued" by the idea of police using body cams for all stops. Of course, I disagree with her comment that if we had cameras "Everyone would know exactly what occurred," because video is not that absolute. Still, this use of cameras (not unlike dashboard cameras) would be a good idea, so long as police accept that everyone else on the public street, including the person in the police encounter, gets to do the same.
LSA Happy Hours and info on the CrimProf Shadow Conference.
Some announcements for folks attending Law and Society next week in Boston:
1) there's a crimprof happy hour on Thursday at 9pm at CityBar,
2) The general Prawfs and friends happy hour will be on Saturday from 9pm at the Sheraton SideBar.
Nunc est bibendum!
3) My co-organizer, Carissa Hessick, has, in her typical god-like ways, assembled the info for the Shadow CrimProf conference. This year's shadow conference will have a fantastic turnout.
Info appears after the jump (although not in exact chronological order).
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Conference on Privacy and Data Security
GEORGE MASON LAW & ECONOMICS CENTER PUBLIC POLICY CONFERENCE ON THE LAW & ECONOMICS OF PRIVACY AND DATA SECURITY
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
George Mason University School of Law (Arlington, VA)
The Law & Economics Center’s Henry G. Manne Program in Law & Economics Studies will present its Public Policy Conference on the Law & Economics of Privacy and Data Security at George Mason University School of Law, Wednesday, June 19. The conference will run from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.
This conference is organized by Henry N. Butler, Executive Director of the Law & Economics Center and George Mason Foundation Professor of Law, and James C. Cooper, Director, Research and Policy at the Law & Economics Center, and Lecturer in Law, George Mason University School of Law.
Consumers have an incredible array of technologies and services available to them online. As these technologies have progressed, there are growing questions as to what policies are best suited to protect consumers and encourage industry innovation. Topics include the role of the state attorneys general in enforcing privacy laws and a discussion of the rapidly changing landscape of spam, spyware, data portability and industry data retention guidelines.
IRS and the political valence of constitutional litigation
I have written before about the phenomenon we have seen since 2008 of politically conservative plaintiffs (individual and organizational) bumping up against limitations on constitutional and civil rights litigation established in cases brought by politically liberal plaintiffs (think of all the birther lawsuits dismissed for lack of standing). The lawsuit filed Tuesday by True the Vote over the IRS handling of exemption applications by conservative groups could be the latest example.
In addition to a declaratory judgment that the group is entitled to its exemption under the tax laws, the lawsuit brings First Amendment claims under Bivens against various IRS officers and supervisors, including the acting commissioner, former commissioner, and direct of the Exempt Organizations Division. How is that part likely to fare?
9th Circuit Strikes Down Arizona 20 Week Fetal Pain Abortion Ban: Some Reflections on the Opinion
Yesterday, the 9th Circuit (a panel of Berzon, Schroeder, Kleinfeld) struck down as unconstitutional Arizona's ban on abortion at 20 weeks. As the court described the statute:
The challenged portion of Section 7, codified at Arizona Revised Statutes § 36-2159, reads:
A. Except in a medical emergency, a person shall not perform, induce or attempt to perform or induce an abortion unless the physician or the referring physician has first made a determination of the probable gestational age of the unborn child. In making that determination, the physician or referring physician shall make any inquiries of the pregnant woman and perform or cause to be performed all medical examinations, imaging studies and tests as a reasonably prudent physician in the community, knowledgeable about the medical facts and conditions of both the woman and the unborn child involved, would consider necessary to perform and consider in making an accurate diagnosis with respect to gestational age.
B. Except in a medical emergency, a person shall not knowingly perform, induce or attempt to perform or induce an abortion on a pregnant woman if the probable gestational age of her unborn child has been determined to be at least twenty weeks.
The stated purpose of the Act is to “[p]rohibit abortions at or after twenty weeks of gestation, except in cases of a medical emergency, based on the documented risks to women’s health and the strong medical evidence that unborn children feel pain during an abortion at that gestational age.” H.B. 2036, sec. 9(B)(1). The Act lists a number of legislative findings in support of the assertions in the purpose provision, with citations to medical research articles. See H.B. 2036, sec. 9(A)(1)–(7).
After Nebraska passed the first of these kinds of bills in 2010, Dr. Sadath Sayeed and I wrote about them in Fetal Pain, Abortion, Viability, and the Constitution, for the peer-reviewed Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics in 2011 on the constitutionality and normative justifiability of these statutes. This is the first case of one of these statutes to reach a Circuit court decision on the merits, so I thought I would offer some thoughts. This will be from the perspective of a scholar not an advocate, though given that I have argued that these statutes should be held unconstitutional I don' t pretend to be disinterested.
Judge Berzon's opinion for the panel takes about as strong a stance against these statutes as possible. She presents this as an easy somewhat "paint-by-numbers" case of unconstitutionality based on prior precedent. Her logic is Roe and Casey make viability an absolutely cut-off for restricting abortions. Viability has to be decided according to the Court by physicians in individual cases. This is a restriction and not a regulation of abortion. The restriction covers pre-viability fetuses. Therefore it is unconstitutional.
That is strongly put, but only by completely ignoring the fetal pain aspects of the case. Indeed to read her opinion one would scarcely know that fetal pain is at issue. As we argued in our article, and I put it even more succinctly in an op-ed in the Washington Post last year:
The fetal-pain bills do not directly challenge the Supreme Court’s judgment. Instead, they assert a new theory for outlawing abortion. The Nebraska bill states that “by twenty weeks after fertilization there is substantial evidence that an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain.” The legislatures passing these laws say that preventing this pain is a compelling state interest that justifies prohibiting abortion.
Hence, the loophole: Although the Supreme Court has identified preserving fetal life after viability as a compelling interest, the justices have never said it is the only one.
These statutes might be thought of as asking the courts to find that preventing pain to fetuses is also a compelling state interest. Alternatively, states may argue that, although preventing pain is not compelling on its own, it becomes so when combined with the state’s interest in preserving fetal life before viability.
Thus, I think Judge Berzon writes a strong opinion only by blinding the reader to what is new and difficult here.
By contrast, I think Judge Kleinfeld's concurrence does a better job of wrestling with the hard issues. His opinion echoes four points we make in our article:
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Sperm Donation, Anonymity, and Compensation: An Empirical Legal Study
In the United States, most sperm donations* are anonymous. By contrast, many developed nations require sperm donors to be identified, typically requiring new sperm (and egg) donors to put identifying information into a registry that is made available to a donor-conceived child once they reach the age of 18. Recently, advocates have pressed U.S. states to adopt these registries as well, and state legislatures have indicated openness to the idea.
In a series of prior papers I have explained why I believe the arguments offered by advocates of these registries fail. Nevertheless, I like to think of myself as somewhat open-minded, so in another set of projects I have undertaken to empirically test what might happen if the U.S. adopted such a system. In particular, I wanted to look at the intersection of anonymity and compensation, something that cannot be done in many of these other countries where compensation for sperm and egg donors is prohibited.
Today I posted online (downloadable here) the first published paper from this project,Can You Buy Sperm Donor Identification? An Experiment, co-authored with Travis Coan, and forthcoming in December 2013 in Vol. 10, Issue 4, of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.
This study relies on a self-selected convenience sample to experimentally examine the economic implications of adopting a mandatory sperm donor identification regime in the U.S. Our results support the hypothesis that subjects in the treatment (non-anonymity) condition need to be paid significantly more, on average, to donate their sperm. When restricting our attention to only those subjects that would ever actually consider donating sperm, we find that individuals in the control condition are willing-to-accept an average of $$43 to donate, while individuals in the treatment group are willing-to-accept an aver-age of $74. These estimates suggest that it would cost roughly $31 per sperm donation, at least in our sample, to require donors to be identified. This price differential roughly corresponds to that of a major U.S. sperm bank that operates both an anonymous and identify release programs in terms of what they pay donors.
We are currently running a companion study on actual U.S. sperm donors and hope soon to expand our research to egg donors, so comments and ideas are very welcome online or offline.
* I will follow the common parlance of using the term "donation" here, while recognizing that the fact that compensation is offered in most cases gives a good reason to think the term is a misnomer.
- I. Glenn Cohen
Entry Level Hiring: The 2013 Report - Final Call for Information (For Real)
This is (honestly) the last call for information for the Entry Level Hiring Report. The data collection will close on Friday, May 24. I am aware that I will miss some hires because of this closing date. C'est la report. (And yes, I am also aware that I do not know French.)
At any rate, if you have information about entry-level hires for this year, please either email me directly (slawsky *at* law *dot* uci *dot* edu), or add a comment to the original information-gathering post.
Please encourage anyone you know who has accepted a job but isn't reflected on the spreadsheet to contact me.
As a reminder, I am looking to collect the following information for tenure-track, clinical, or legal writing full-time entry-level hires:
Basic Information: Name, Hiring School, JD Institution, JD Year of Graduation
Other Degrees: Type of Degree, Degree Granting Institution, Degree Subject
Fellowship, VAP, or Visiting Professorship: Institution and Type (e.g., VAP, name of fellowship, etc.)
Clerkship: Court (e.g., 9th Circuit, Texas Supreme Court, etc.)
Areas of Speciality (up to four) (if you are a clinical or LRW hire, please list this as your first Area of Specialty)
Type of Position: Tenure Track or Non-Tenure Track (if you are clinical or LRW and also tenure-track, please indicate this)
Helping OklahomaJust a quick PSA-type post from this Tuscaloosan: Here are a few sites with suggestions about how to direct your aid for the victims of yesterday's tornado in Oklahoma.
Monday, May 20, 2013
FSU Law Is Hiring, 2013 editionFlorida State University's appointments committee for the College of Law will be gearing up over the summer and we are looking (principally) for laterals in the following areas: Environmental Law, Torts/Products, Trusts and Estates, Tax, Health Law and ADR. If you or someone you know is a possibly good fit for FSU’s virtues (ie., extraordinary scholarly culture, good weather, great cookies, among other things), please feel free to (have them) send Wayne Logan (and/or me) a CV and statement of interest. The Fall 2013 committee includes Wayne (Chair), Hannah Wiseman, Manuel Utset, Courtney Cahill, and myself. (If you are outside our targeted area of interest, but still keen on FSU, please don't hesitate to send us your materials as needs and interests evolve.) As always, FSU seeks a diverse pool of applicants from a wide range of backgrounds and interests.
More on the Town of Greece
Following up on Paul's post, just a few quick thoughts (for now): First, I agree entirely with Paul that his book, and Chris Lund's excellent article, are must-reads on this subject. Since Chris is visiting at Notre Dame next year, I look forward to learning a lot from him about this case.
Next -- and proving true, I guess, Paul's predictions about disagreements-among-friends -- I think it would be a good thing if the possibility Eugene Volokh raises - i.e., that the Court might re-examine the so-called "endorsement test" -- came to pass. I think the criticisms directed at that test in Steven Smith's 1987 article had and have force.
Finally, even if the justices leave the "endorsement test" in place, I hope they do not follow the Second Circuit in importing that test into the legislative-prayer context. Yes, this context is an anomalous one and, yes, Marsh was and is something of an outlier, given that it prioritized history, tradition, and practice over the "wall of separation" idea. For reasons I mention in this very short piece, I don't think the courts are very good at deploying all-things-considered balancing tests that purport to somehow measure the effects of religious displays and the like on the feelings of hypothetical "reasonable observers" and so they probably shouldn't try. Better, it seems to me, to either (a) rule out legislative prayers as per se unconstitutional "establishments" or (b) police the practice for discrimination in selection and leave the issue of particular prayers' content to politics and (dare we hope?) a spirit of charity.
Beware of "Town of Greece" Bearing Gifts
The Supreme Court has granted cert. in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case out of the Second Circuit involving prayers given by guest chaplains before monthly town board meetings. Here is the SCOTUSBlog page, and here's the Second Circuit opinion by Judge Calabresi.
There has been a good deal of circuit court action involving legislative prayer, but the Supreme Court has basically not touched it since Marsh v. Chambers. Prediction is pointless, so I'll just say the following.
1) I talk about legislative prayers and similar cases in my book The Agnostic Age. I characterize the rulings in this area as "constitutional easements" over the Establishment Clause and argue that they are constitutionally problematic, at least, although I suggest that we might be better off letting sleeping dogs lie. (Andy Koppelman criticizes Marsh in similar terms in his excellent recent book, Defending American Religious Neutrality and says clearly that it should be overruled.) It would appear that the dogs are awake and hungry.
2) There is a good deal of consensus and friendship among law and religion scholars these days, at least in my view. The friendships will remain, I'm sure. But this is one case that will reveal the differences among us more starkly than many recent cases. I look forward to friendly disagreements with colleagues like Rick Garnett and Marc DeGirolami.
3) The best scholarly work in this area that I am aware of is by Christopher C. Lund. If you're interested in this case and these issues, you ought to read Chris's work. I hope we can get him over here for a timely guest stint at Prawfsblawg.
Sex, People with Disabilities, Prostitution, and Universal Health Care: Reflections on "The Sessions"
One of my favorite initiatives at Harvard Law School, where I teach, is that faculty members get to offer an optional 10-12 student not-for-credit "First-Year Reading Groups" on a topic of interest to them that is related to law in some way but not too law-class like. I've taught a reading group on bioethics and law through film that pairs films with papers/topics in bioethics (e.g., A.I. with readings on personhood, Minority Report and neuroscience and law and predicting criminality, Dirty Pretty Things and organ sale and exploitation, The Constant Gardener with clinical trials in the developing world, Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and therapeutic forgetting and "cosmetic neurology" and many others...)
Next year I will add The Sessions, a film I found very enjoyable starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, and William H. Macy from last year that I also found very bioethically interesting. The film is based on a true story and follows Mark O'Brien, a poet who lives in an Iron Lung due to complications from Polio. After unsuccessfully proposing to his caretaker, and believing the end of his life may be nearing, he decides he wants to lose his virginity. He hires Cheryl Cohen-Greene, a professional sex surrogate, who will offer him a maximum of six sessions but makes clear to him this is therapy not romance. I will stop there to avoid ruining the film, but on to the bioethics...
There are fairly clear issues raised about commodification, exploitation, the difference between sex therapy and prostitution, that I have written about in various forms in various places. These are certainly interesting issues but familiar enough. What the film newly prompted me to think about, though, is actually universal health care. In particular, as I have written about indirectly in a couple of papers, what would some of the most prominent theories explaining why we need universal health care say about whether the state should pay for sex therapy (or perhaps even prostitution) for people with disabilities like Mark who find themselves otherwise unable to have sex?
For example, in his wonderful book Just Health, my colleague Norman Daniels, coming from a more Rawlsian tradition (i.e., a liberal tradition focused on promoting liberty and distributive justice through giving priority to the worst-off), grounds the state’s role in promoting health in the obligation, as a matter of political justice, to ensure access to the “normal opportunity range” to pursue the “array of life plans reasonable persons are likely to develop for themselves.” Although Daniels' focus is on health care, it seems to me that sexual satisfaction is also part of that normal opportunity range and part of a life plan most of us would like to pursue.
Similarly, Martha Nussbaum in her great book Frontiers of Justice, writing from a more aretaic (i.e., Aristotelian, focusing on character and virtue) perspective, has argued that the state’s role is to enable human flourishing by raising people above the threshold level on a number of “capabilities.” Among these she mentions “bodily integrity,” as including “having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction." I have previously discussed how this kind of approach may justify funding reproductive technologies, but it seems to me as though it also fairly directly establishes an argument for funding Mark's attempts to lose his virginity.
Now this is meant to be provocative, of course. And for some this is no doubt a reductio ad absurdum against universal health care. Fair enough. But for those who believe there is a moral case for funding universal health care, does the argument also lead to funding these kinds of sex therapies? Health is important, of course, but let's be frank (and my parents can stop reading at this point) so is sexual satisfaction, and both seem to me essential parts of the normal opportunity range and/or human flourishing.