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Week in politics: What last night's Supreme Court order means for abortion access


Last night, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked lower court decisions banning or limiting access to the abortion pill mifepristone. The medication will remain widely available while the case works its way through an appeals court. So the legal and political battle over abortion continues. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: A short, unsigned order from the Supreme Court. We do know dissenting justices were Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. What do you see in this order?

ELVING: For the moment, at least, it's good news for those who want access to abortion, bad news for those who don't want abortion to be available. About half the abortions in the U.S. are now done using this drug. Twenty years ago, the FDA said it was safe and effective in the first 10 weeks of gestation. But one federal judge in Texas earlier this month issued a broad ruling attacking that FDA approval as it applies in all 50 states, saying the agency had used unsound reasoning and flawed studies all these years ago. Now, that ruling was partly overturned and partly upheld by a federal appeals court, the 5th Circuit Court in New Orleans. So now the Supreme Court has stepped in, sending the matter back to the New Orleans court for further hearings next month. After that, we can expect yet another appeal to reach the Supreme Court this fall, at which time the outcome, the outlook - the outcome could be quite different. There were just two justices, as you say, publicly dissenting last night, Alito and Thomas. But there were six votes to overturn Roe v. Wade last summer. And this is still the same lineup of justices on the court.

SIMON: Are we seeing what amounts to the fruition of years of effort from conservative activists?

ELVING: Yes, going back to the 1970s, there's been a movement to repopulate the federal courts with more conservative jurists. Now, that movement has been enormously successful in producing judges when Republicans have been in the White House. And that includes the judge who was appointed in Texas by Donald Trump. And they're committed to a certain judicial philosophy and often to an anti-abortion agenda. And one manifestation of that has been the membership in the Federalist Society. Not all of them are necessarily anti-abortion but very much believers in a particular judicial philosophy. It began in law schools in the '70s, and now it's part of the background that's shared by most of the members of the Supreme Court. And over these same years, anti-abortion activists have become a critical component of the Republican voting base. Their leading organizations and their leaders have become enormously influential, not only in Supreme Court nominations but in Republican primaries, including presidential primaries.

SIMON: All this happens at a time when delicate questions are being raised about the court, aren't there?

ELVING: Yes, the abortion drama is happening against a rather dramatic backdrop of controversy involving the court itself. In fact, this week, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dick Durbin, sent an extraordinary letter to Chief Justice John Roberts, inviting the chief to come to the Hill and explain why the high court does not have a formal ethics code and why it has tolerated things such as Justice Thomas's failure to disclose lavish gifts and sweetheart real estate deals that he got from a billionaire Republican megadonor. And we're waiting to see if Roberts will agree to appear voluntarily or whether that's going to happen at all.

SIMON: The debt ceiling crisis - happy resolution in sight, Ron?

ELVING: Well, not close. And actually, it is only getting to be a little bit more parlous because the debt ceiling is getting closer. And actually, the revenue intake by the federal government in recent weeks has been disappointing. So the real crunch time now looks like mid-, well, June, perhaps, instead of late summer. And the Biden administration wants a clean debt limit extension bill. But the House Republicans under Kevin McCarthy are insisting that we have to have deep spending cuts. And first, with no adjustments to revenue or Social Security or Medicare and no cuts for defense spending, that leaves a very limited target environment for cuts. And whatever gets curtailed will have to be curtailed severely.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for