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Battleground abortion

Battleground abortion

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Elon Musk said he wouldn’t have bought Twitter if not forced to by a US court.
  • Tony Danker, ex-head of Britain’s CBI, said he was shocked to be sacked pending a review of multiple accusations of sexual harassment.
  • Pierre Lacotte, the French choreographer who helped Rudolf Nureyev defect from the Soviet Union, died aged 91.

Battleground abortion

On Good Friday, a federal judge in Texas reversed the US Food and Drug Administration’s 23-year-old approval of the abortion pill mifepristone. Eighteen minutes later, a federal judge in Washington state ordered the FDA to preserve access to the drug in the 17 states that had brought a separate suit.

So what? For forty years, the conservative legal movement in the US has been driven by its pursuit of two goals – outlawing abortion and shrinking the size and authority of the federal government.

  • The Texas lawsuit is a clumsy attempt at achieving both.
  • The Washington lawsuit is a direct challenge to it.
  • The Supreme Court will almost certainly adjudicate between them, but voters enraged (and inspired) by last year’s overturning of Roe v Wade will be heard too, throughout the 18-month run-in to next year’s election.

The pills. More than half of all US abortions are medical – meaning the pregnancy is ended by taking a set of pills. If (and it’s still an if) the FDA is forced to revoke its approval of mifepristone, millions more women will lose legal access to abortion.

How they work. In the US, medical abortions are currently a two-step, two-drug regimen. 

  • First, a patient takes mifepristone, which terminates the pregnancy.
  • Twenty-four hours later, they take four misoprostol pills, which soften the cervix and ultimately expel the pregnancy.

If mifepristone approval is revoked, misoprostol can be used on its own, but it’s not as effective and can cause more side effects.

The Texas case. In November 2022, a coalition of anti-abortion groups and doctors called the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine sued the FDA to reverse its approval of mifepristone, claiming the agency has never proven the drug to be safe.

Fact check. No drug is without risks, but research finds mifepristone to be safer than paracetamol, penicillin and Viagra. 

The Texas ruling. On Friday, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk issued a preliminary injunction ordering the FDA to remove approval for mifepristone. The ruling itself does not come as a surprise since the plaintiffs filed suit in the northern Texas district precisely because Kacsmaryk is the only federal judge there.

Kacsmaryk is a Trump appointee with a long record of opposing abortion, and his 67-page ruling borrows freely from activists’ rhetoric. His ruling

  • uses “unborn human” or “unborn child” rather than “foetus” or “embryo” and calls abortion providers “abortionists”; 
  • advocates for a direct reading of the Comstock Act, a rarely enforced anti-obscenity law from 1873 which prohibits mail-order abortion; and
  • lays out an argument for foetal personhood.

The Washington case. In February, 17 Democratic states and the District of Columbia sued the FDA to make mifepristone easier to obtain.

The Washington ruling. Less than an hour after Kacsmaryk’s ruling, Judge Thomas Rice, an Obama appointee, issued a partial preliminary injunction blocking the FDA from removing mifepristone from the market in the states bringing the case. 

What next? The Justice Department has already appealed to prevent the Texas order taking effect as scheduled on Friday. In the meantime mifepristone is still available legally, but that’s not necessarily the point.

The more complicated abortion laws become, the more cautious and confused pregnant women will be when seeking an abortion. According to David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University who specialises in reproductive rights, that’s a win for the anti-abortion movement: “It accomplishes their goal without actually having to change anything.”

Ultimately? The competing nature of the rulings means this will probably end up in the Supreme Court – the Supreme Court that overturned Roe last year.

That portends another legal win for the anti-abortion movement, but politically it may have overreached. Last week a liberal judge won election to the Wisconsin Supreme Court by a margin of 11 points.


Mighty minnows
One not-very-big German firm controls half the global market for snuff. Another sells 70 per cent of the world’s retractable dog leads. A third makes the world’s mightiest tunnelling machines. Adrian Wooldridge admires them all in a piece for Bloomberg on how Germany’s fabled mittelstand is poised to thrive (as bigger firms might not be) as globalisation goes into reverse. Their rules of thumb are to go niche, stay alert and be suspicious. They don’t eschew trade with China but do watch their IP like hawks – and they’ve turned their backs on Russia altogether. Here’s another ultra-niche mighty minnow for Wooldridge’s list: Diamond Materials of Freiburg, the world’s only maker of synthetic diamond balls for laser inertial confinement fusion.


Friendly energy
The world is on course to generate less electricity this year with fossil fuels than last. If so it would be the first ever global downturn in power generation from oil, coal and gas not accounted for by recession or pandemic, and the rich world would be indebted mainly to China and Brazil. China installed half the world’s new wind power capacity last year and 40 per cent of its new solar panels, according to Ember’s Global Electricity Review. The review says Brazil cut its gas-powered generation by a barely plausible 46 per cent. Separately, South Korea wants to get in on the act by quadrupling its acreage of solar panels on factory roofs. This is smart for crowded countries but worth thinking about everywhere. Take off from any US airport, look down, and it’s clear the US rooftop solar revolution has barely begun.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

A death from bird flu
Today, the first human death from H3N8 bird flu was recorded in China. There’s no need to panic – the WHO says the risk of transmission between humans is unlikely, and the strain that killed the woman in China – H3N8 – is unrelated to the H5N1 pandemic that is sweeping through bird populations (covered in yesterday’s Sensemaker). The woman was one of only three people to have been infected with H3N8, all thought to have been exposed at live poultry markets in China, so unless you’re hanging around them a lot, you can sleep easy… for now.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Macron’s left feet
Not content with infuriating allies by appearing to cosy up to China at Taiwan’s expense, Emmanuel Macron went to the Hague yesterday and doubled down. He gave a speech in praise of European sovereignty in multiple areas including industry, energy technology and defence, apparently heedless of Europe’s continuing and overwhelming dependence on the US for the military hardware needed to help Ukraine keep Russia at bay. Macron is right that absent a coherent and robust European defence strategy, US leaders from both main parties will justifiably accuse the EU of freeloading. But he is mad to undermine western unity in the face of Chinese and Russian totalitarianism for the sake of France’s diplomatic amour propre.


Biden’s roots
If Rishi Sunak hoped Joe Biden’s visit to Belfast today would nudge unionists back into power-sharing, he hoped in vain. The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is a useful reminder of the Troubles that preceded it, and US presidents – especially Clinton – have hitherto been seen by all sides as helpful interlocutors. But not Biden, not by the Democratic Unionist Party, not now. The DUP sees Biden as transparently pro-nationalist and – per Sammy Wilson MP – anti-British. He’s certainly not worried about the optics of flying into Belfast rather than London and spending only 15 hours of a four-day trip to the island of Ireland in the north, most of them asleep. He heads south after lunch for three days in the Republic, where his great great great grandfather was born in 1803. Power-sharing remains on hold.

Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Phoebe Davis

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Katie Riley and James Wilson.

Photographs Getty Images, Herrenknecht AG

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