North America

Canada Terminates Collection and Reporting of COVID-19 Cases in Schools While Texas Governor Bans Mask Mandates in Schools

By: Jessica Senzer

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

NORTH AMERICA — On December 30, 2021, Ontario’s s Ministry of Education announced that it will no longer collect or report data of new COVID-19 infections starting in 2022. Before this change, the Ministry of Education collected COVID-19 data, including weekly case numbers from school boards. Education Minister Stephen Lecce stated that this was done partially because “schools are literally some of the safest places in our community…”

Texas students in school. Photo courtesy of Texas Tribune.

However, this decision was not well-accepted among all Canadians. In fact, in a statement, New Democratic Party Education Critic Marit Stiles said that this action “is going to hurt kids, families, and education workers.” Decisions that reduced COVID-19 protections have been unaccepted in the past, particularly by disabled communities. Canada’s disabled community will likely take issue with the Ministry’s new announcement.

On August 11, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott passed an Executive Order that prohibited school districts and charter schools from enforcing mask mandates-the Texas governor loosened COVID-19 protections in the state. Like in Canada, this decision was met with much citizen dissatisfaction.

Less than a week after the Executive Order was passed, Disability Rights Texas and Winston & Strawn LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of 14 disabled child plaintiffs, claiming, among other things, that the Order puts students with disabilities at great risk by depriving them of in-person education in a safe environment.

Disabled students in Canada will likely have similar concerns. Since the Ministry of Education is no longer collecting or reporting data on COVID-19 infection rates, students, disabled or not, will not know how many students, faculty, and staff, have, have been exposed to or have symptoms of COVID-19. This change could pose problems for students with various disabilities, including those that lead to a compromised immune system or anxiety.

In the Texas lawsuit, one plaintiff had ADHD, growth hormone deficiency, and asthma. She claimed she was at greater risk of serious illness because she needed to participate in in-person instruction but constantly had to worry about being exposed to COVID-19 at school. Canadian schoolchildren will face similar concerns if they do not know how many students, faculty, and staff have been exposed to, contracted, or have symptoms of COVID-19 due to government non-reporting of this data.

For further information, please see:

Disability Rights Texas- First Federal Lawsuit Filed Against Texas Governor on Mask Mandate Ban Says It Violates ADA, Section 504- 17 Aug. 2021

Global News- Ontario’s education ministry to stop collecting COVID case numbers from schools- 1 Jan. 2022

Toronto News- Ontario to stop collecting COVID-19 numbers from school boards, suspend reporting of cases – 31 Dec. 2021

Facebook and the Perpetuation of Human Trafficking

By: Kendall Hay

Journal of Global Rights and Organizations, Associate Articles Editor

UNITED STATES — In October 2021, a former Facebook employee provided an internal report to Congress which revealed the company’s awareness of several illegal activities on the site. However, despite their awareness, Facebook made a deliberate decision not to act in an effort to protect their bottom line. These recently published “Facebook papers” reveal that the company was aware of human trafficking on the platform and purposely chose to withhold efforts to combat the problem.

Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, CA. Photo courtesy of Time.

The whistleblower revealed widespread trafficking occurring in the Middle East in the sphere of domestic labor. These workers are coerced into earning money for their family either by fraud or deception and then are forced to terms and undignified conditions once there. After being stripped of all forms of communication, they are then faced with domestic and sexual violence and left without the promised earnings.

One of the problems that has led to this issue is the rapid growth the social media site has experienced but has been unable to properly maintain. Being an international platform has also presented challenges to the company, one of which is the difficulty in policing illegal activity on such a widespread scale.

A search on Facebook for maids can render results with a picture and a price accompanying the image, and this even occurs after local governments have scoured the site daily in an attempt to stop such practices.

Although Facebook denies these allegations, it is clear that the advertising benefits they receive have taken precedence over taking measures to ban online solicitation. With over 2 billion users, the company generates extensive profits through advertising. And while they could use some of this advertising space for public service announcements to warn of the potential trap, Facebook has chosen to turn a blind eye. The outcry from victims for these warning messages has escalated in recent months.

In June 2021, The Texas Supreme Court ruled against Facebook in a lawsuit filed by women who were abused and trafficked from the site. The court declared that a Texas statute allows these women to bring a civil cause of action against Facebook for intentionally knowing and benefiting from participation in sex trafficking.

Facebook will soon be facing a class action lawsuit that will be filed at the end of December for misleading shareholders. The lawsuit claims that, among other things, Facebook failed to respond to drug cartels and human traffickers. They are also complaining of attracting pre-teens to the site as well as publicly misleading users and issuing false statements. Because of the drop in Facebook’s share price due to the alleged complaints, plaintiffs are seeking damages for their significant loss.

For further Information please see:

ABA Journal Sex-trafficking victims can sue Facebook for allegedly facilitating their recruitment – 30 June 2021

AP News – Apple once threatened Facebook ban over Mideast maid abuse – 25 Oct. 2021

AP News – People or Profit? Facebook Papers Show Deep Conflict Within – 25 Oct. 2021

Bloomberg – Facebook must face claims linked to sex trafficking judge says – 25 June 2021

CNN – Facebook has shown it has a human trafficking problem for years – 25 Oct. 2021

Washington Post – What are the Facebook papers – 25 Oct. 2021

Yahoo – Shareholder Class Action Deadline – 2 Dec. 2021

Supreme Court to Hear First Pre-Viability Abortion Case Since Roe v. Wade

By: Anna E. Melo     

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

WASHINGTON D.C., United States – On December 1, 2021, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to evaluate the constitutionality of a Mississippi law restricting access to abortion in most situations after 15 weeks of gestation-period. The Department of Health in Mississippi seeks to overturn previously decided landmark abortion cases ensuring a woman’s right to terminate pregnancy up to fetal viability (defined as where a growing fetus would be able to survive ex utero). With a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, proponents for women’s reproductive rights anxiously await a decision that may transform the landscape of accessible healthcare in the United States.

Pro-choice advocates protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. Photo by REUTERS/Tom Brenner.

For nearly 50 years, the holdings of cases such as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey have established that the 4th and 14th Amendments support a woman’s right of privacy to choose to terminate a pregnancy without unnecessary barriers. Subsequently, some state legislatures have sought to impose restrictions dictating the limited circumstances whereby a woman would be allowed to receive the procedure.

In 1972, Mississippi enacted the Gestational Age Act which is full of language directed towards the potential emotional and physical harm caused by abortion procedures. It describes various fetal developments week by week up to the ‘cut off gestational age’ of 15 weeks (two weeks into the second trimester). The only exceptions past this threshold point that the Act allows for are medical emergencies or in cases of severe fetal abnormality (notably excluding instances of rape and incest). Physicians are tasked with reporting each abortion procedure conducted under oath, with the threat of civil penalties and/or license suspension or revocation for noncompliance with the provisions of the Act.

Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the last operating abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, leaving women, especially the poor and minorities, with very few opportunities to obtain the procedure.

Jackson Women’s Health sued the State Health Officer of the Mississippi Department of Health to challenge the Gestational Age Act in 2018 on the merits that a pre-viability ban on abortion is unconstitutional. The district court for the Southern District of Mississippi found that the restrictive obstacles the Act imposes on women were unlawful. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that the Act was unconstitutional in 2019. The State Health Officer of Mississippi Department of Health and the Executive Director of the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure appealed the 5th circuits decision, to which the Supreme Court has granted certiorari.

The topic of abortion is inherently contentious. It invites arguments and counterarguments concerning religion, philosophy, politics, and medicine. A case on the Supreme Court’s docket, especially in 2021, may leave more questions than answers.  Will advancements in medicine naturally shift ‘fetal viability’ earlier into a pregnancy?  Will an outright overturn of predominant case law in women’s and reproductive rights cause a domino effect in various conservative states to ban abortion altogether or the adoption of certain restrictions such as the ‘Heartbeat Bill’ at six weeks gestation?  Will we see action by Congress in an attempt to implement federal law that counters prohibitory state actions? In the next few months, the Supreme Court will be tasked with balancing these delicate matters that will have an undoubted impact on the status of women’s health and human rights in the United States.

For more information, please see:

5th Circuit – Decision Jackson Women’s Health Org. v. Dobbs, 945 F.3d 265 – Dec. 13, 2019.   

Mississippi Gestational Age Act – Current through 2021.  

United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi – Decision Jackson Women’s Health Org. v. Currier, 349 F. Supp. 3d 536 – Nov. 20, 2018.

United States Supreme Court – Decision Granting Motion for Certiorari Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health – Oct. 12, 2021.

Unauthorized Science: Estate of Henrietta Lacks Sues Pharmaceutical Company For Using Cells Without Consent

By: Tim Murphy

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

BALTIMORE, Maryland – The estate of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose continuously dividing cells have been used in scientific and medical research for decades, is suing the pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific for unjust enrichment, stating that Lacks’s cells were taken without her consent and have been used without the estate’s compensation for decades.

Many may have learned about Henrietta Lacks from a high school biology class, or read about her life in Rebecca Skloot’s popular 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was later adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Born in 1920, Lacks was a Black woman who was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer when a doctor took and used a sample of Lacks’s cells in a petri dish without her consent. The cells, which later became known as “HeLa cells,” continued to rapidly reproduce outside the body, becoming the first human cell line to do so. Henrietta Lacks died shortly after in 1951. Neither Lacks nor her family was not compensated for her cells. 

Four of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren and attorney Ben Crump outside the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun.

It wasn’t until decades after her death that the general public became aware that the HeLa cells were originally taken and used without Lacks’s consent. While there are now policies in place to protect patients from non-consensual use of cell-samples, these regulations did not exist at the time Lacks was undergoing treatment. Regardless, companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific are still using and profiting from HeLa cells without the compensation of Lacks’s estate.

The lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific seeks “the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”  However, for grandson Ron Lacks, the lawsuit is not just about the money. “We will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy,” he said. The estate also plans to file lawsuits in the following weeks against other companies that profit from the HeLa cell line.

For further information, please see:

CNN – Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotechnical company for nonconsensual use of her cells – 5 Oct. 2021

Live Science – Henrietta Lacks’ family sues biotech firm for use of ‘stolen’ cells – 8 Oct. 2021

NPR – Henrietta Lacks’ estate sued a company saying it used her ‘stolen’ cells for research – Oct. 4 2021

The Baltimore Sun – Family of Henrietta Lacks files suit against biotech company for using famous ‘HeLa’ cells without permission – 4 Oct. 2021

The Washington Post – 70 years ago, Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken without consent. Now, her family wants justice – 4 Oct. 2021

Vaccine Equity: Member States at the World Trade Organization Debate Global Vaccine Access And Human Rights Commitments

By: Rishav Shah

 Impunity Watch Staff Writer

WASHINGTON D.C., United States – As governments around the globe scale up vaccination efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community is grappling with the convergence of “vaccine nationalism” or “hoarding” and intellectual property rights resulting in gross disparities in access to vaccine supply between upper and lower-income countries.

New Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

On February 5th, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that three-quarters of the current vaccine supply has been secured and administered by 10 countries that account for 60 percent of global economic growth, while 130 countries- home to 2.5 billion people- had not received a single dose.

The potential emergence of a “vaccine apartheid” has prompted member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to debate the means by which to boost global vaccine access.

On October 2nd, 2020, South Africa and India submitted a proposal to suspend the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the duration of the pandemic. The effect of the proposal would be a temporary intellectual property waiver on technology, drugs, and vaccines related to the pandemic. By temporarily waiving intellectual property rights with respect to COVID-19 specific equipment, drugs, and vaccines, the proposal seeks to facilitate the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge to developing countries with the goal of ramping up global production of vaccines and increasing access beyond just the wealthiest nations.

At issue before the WTO is the larger question of whether vaccines should be treated as market commodities, or public goods.

Since October, support for the proposal has gained momentum, with all 57 members of the African Union at the World Trade Organization signing on as co-sponsors. In addition, 31 U.S. lawmakers have expressed support for the waiver, along with 115 members of the European Parliament. Notably, in February 2021, more than 400 organizations in the United States called on President Biden to endorse the waiver.

A number of high-income countries in which large pharmaceutical companies exert substantial political influence, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, and Brazil, have argued against the waiver. This opposition is based on the argument that any waiver of patents would deter private investment, thus hampering scientific innovation. In addition, these countries contend that existing WTO regulations like the Doha Declaration of 2001 allow pharmaceutical companies to negotiate bilateral agreements with generic manufactures in order to tackle public health emergencies.

Supporters of the proposal disagree with the notion that the waiver would hamper scientific development, noting that large pharmaceutical companies received close to 10 billion USD in public funds and non-profit funding for their vaccine candidates. Their position is that the waiver will give governments of the global south an opportunity to pursue mass vaccine manufacturing by tapping into unused or under-used factories and facilities in their respective countries or anywhere in the world, instead of being priced out of vaccine purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies

The Director-General of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has come out strongly against vaccine nationalism but is yet to endorse the proposal set forth by India and South Africa. She has articulated a “third-way” approach whereby large pharmaceuticals license manufacturing to countries in order to increase vaccine supply without compromising intellectual property rights. This approach would leave control over production limits with large pharmaceutical companies.

Some of the countries in opposition to the waiver-Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, and others- have pledged to donate financial resources and surplus vaccines to the UN-backed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX).  COVAX is a program designed to boost the distribution of vaccines to low-income countries. While donations to COVAX will improve vaccine access, COVAX aims to vaccinate only 20% of every participating country’s population. This is far from what is needed to achieve herd immunities in lower-income countries that are relying heavily on COVAX as their primary vaccine distributor.

In the months since the impasse at the WTO, another 2.65 million people have succumbed to the virus globally. The wealthy countries in opposition to a temporary suspension of the TRIPS agreement have made their case in favor of private enterprise, but are yet to outline an approach that would remedy the issue of vaccine hoarding and curb the spread of COVID-19 in countries with limited access to the vaccine. The decision to treat a vaccine that has been largely subsidized by taxpayer money and public funds as a private market commodity– rather than a public good– will have unconscionable human rights implications. Without the temporary suspension of the WTO TRIPS agreement allowing poorer nations to produce the vaccines widely, the vast majority of the global vaccine supply will remain disproportionately concentrated in the world’s wealthiest countries, leaving lower-income countries to be ravaged by mass fatalities from the virus.

For further information, please see:

Al-Jazeera – Patently Unfair: Can Waivers Help Solve Vaccine Inequality? – 1 Mar. 2021

Euronews – Rich countries must stop ‘vaccine apartheid’ – 11 Mar. 2021

Foreign Policy – Rich vs. Poor (Again) at WTO – 10 Mar.2021

Reuters – Incoming WTO head warns ‘vaccine nationalism’ could slow pandemic recovery – 15 Feb. 2021

World Health Organization – WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 5 Feb. 2021