06/24/2022

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Roe V. Wade

12:14 minutes

outside of the supreme court building
Credit: Shutterstock

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Friday to overturn Roe v Wade. While there have been rumblings that this decision was going to happen, it’s still a shock to many people in the U.S.

In early May, a draft opinion was leaked that had circulated among the court justices, showing a majority of them were in support of the overturn. This will have huge ripple effects throughout the U.S. when it comes to reproductive healthcare. 

A study from the University of California predicts a quarter of abortion clinics in the U.S. are likely to shut down under this rule, with the biggest impact in the South and Midwest.

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with SciFri radio producer Kathleen Davis about what’s next for abortion rights in America and other science news of the week, including evidence of community transmission of polio in London and Canada’s single-use plastic ban.


Further reading


Read our past coverage on reproductive health


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Segment Guests

Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

Segment Transcript

MADDIE SOFIA: This is Science Friday. I’m Maddie Sofia, sitting in for Ira Flatow. You may know me as the former co-host of the show Shortwave, NPR’S daily science podcast. I am so, so glad to be back on your radios once again. Later in the hour, science writer Ed Yong takes us inside the amazing sensory worlds of other animals.

But first, this morning the US Supreme Court decided to overturn Roe v. Wade, the ruling that guaranteed abortion rights for nearly 50 years. The decision was expected, given that the draft opinion was leaked in May. But it is still devastating to many people in the United States.

So what will the impact of this decision be? Joining me now to break down this and other short stories of the week is my guest, Kathleen Davis, producer for Science Friday, joining me from Brooklyn, New York. Hey, Kathleen.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Hey, Maddie.

MADDIE SOFIA: So many of us have been waiting with bated breath for this legal decision. Now that it’s out, what does this mean?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, it’s important to note that this isn’t really a surprise. We’ve known that a decision has been pending in the Supreme Court for about a month now. And to give our listeners a little bit of a refresher, a draft opinion was leaked in early May that had circulated among the Supreme Court justices. And it showed that a majority of them were in support of overturning Roe v. Wade. We now know that the outcome of that draft was indeed the court’s final decision.

The actual case the court looked at was called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. So that Jackson, Mississippi, clinic is the only abortion provider in the state. It sued Mississippi over a 15-week abortion ban that has no exceptions for pregnancies by rape or incest. The Supreme Court going in favor of this Mississippi law effectively overturns Roe v. Wade’s precedent, which is going to have huge ripple effects throughout the US.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right. I mean, what could this mean for the country?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, so a study from the University of California says that more than 25% of abortion clinics in the US are likely to shut down under this overturn. And this will probably have the biggest impact in the South and the Midwest.

Science Friday has been reporting a lot over the last few weeks on repercussions that this overturn could have. We’ve already seen that a six-week abortion ban in Texas has limited access to care for things like miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. Ectopic pregnancies are a rare but potentially fatal medical condition where the fetus actually grows outside of the uterus. And those repercussions will come from the fact that medication that’s used for abortions are also approved treatments for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies. And we’ve reported on the fact that in vitro fertilization treatment could also be wrapped up in some tricky legal territory.

MADDIE SOFIA: Yeah. And Kathleen, I feel like we’d be remiss not to say that abortions have happened forever and will continue to happen under this new ruling.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Right. A lot of reproductive rights advocates say that people are still going to seek abortions. And without legal options, there are some people who may have to turn to more dangerous methods. But I think it’s really important to keep in mind that over half of abortions in the United States are done using medication. And although many states will make accessing these prescriptions illegal, there are online suppliers from abroad that will ship the same FDA-approved medications to patients even though it is technically illegal to order prescription medication from overseas.

And just as in the past, access to abortion is going to depend on how much money and resources people have. So people with money and time to travel across state lines to get an abortion will still be able to do that. But people who don’t have those same resources won’t be able to. And this is actually addressed in the dissent by Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer, in the opinion. So they say that “Today’s decision, the majority says, permits each state to address abortion as it pleases.” But they say, “This is cold comfort for the poor woman who cannot get the money to fly to a distant state for a procedure.”

MADDIE SOFIA: Right. OK, let’s switch gears and head over to London for our next story. There’s been evidence of the polio virus being found in wastewater. Tell me about that.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, so in North and East London, evidence has been discovered of community transmission of polio virus. The way that people found this out was through sewage, which might sound kind of weird, but the US tests wastewater for viruses as well. It’s how a lot of places are keeping track of COVID transmission rates.

In terms of polio, sewage tests in the UK pick up a handful of unrelated polio virus findings every year. That’s not super unusual. And this is largely due to virus shedding that happens after people get immunized. But this is the first time in a while that there has been a cluster found.

Experts say that risk to the general public is low at this time. And it’s important to note that no cases of the actual polio disease have been reported, nor have there been any cases of paralysis, which is associated with polio cases. Also, paralysis is pretty rare when it comes to polio.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right. And to be clear, polio was eradicated in most parts of the world because of vaccines, right?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Right. The last case was found in the ’80s in the UK. And in Britain, the vast majority of people are vaccinated against polio when they’re kids. So the genetic sequences of the virus that were found in the sewage suggests that these individuals may be related. So the government is urging people to make sure that they’re fully vaccinated against polio, and if they’re not, to make sure that they make that a priority. In the UK, kids are vaccinated when they’re 8, 12, and 16 weeks old. And then boosters are available when the kids are a little bit older.

In the US, there has been no polio that has actually originated in the country since 1973. Kids here get vaccinated with an inactivated virus when they are two and four months old, and then they get two more doses when they’re a little older.

MADDIE SOFIA: Got it. OK, let’s move on to a story about an invasive species in Florida– a big invasive species, we should say– a Burmese python. Tell us all about that.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, so this story comes to us from reporter Rebecca Dzombak at National Geographic. So earlier this month, researchers in Naples, Florida, found and killed the largest Burmese python that was ever recorded in the state. It weighed 215 pounds, and it was almost 18 feet long.

That is massive. I don’t think I need to tell you that. The thing is, Burmese pythons are not native to Florida. They’re an invasive species that were introduced to the state in the ’70s. It’s likely that these came from the exotic pet trade. Since the ’70s, their populations have exploded in the wild. And it’s really not hard to understand why, because this python that was recently found was pregnant.

MADDIE SOFIA: I don’t want to ask, but I want to ask. Kathleen, how many babies are we talking about?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So this python– get ready– had 122 proto-eggs that were gestating. So potentially 122 baby pythons could have been born from this one mama python. The researchers who studied the snake say this is a record number of eggs. It was also way bigger than normal. So most Burmese pythons found in Florida are between 6 and 10 feet long. This one, again, was 18 feet. So record size, record eggs.

MADDIE SOFIA: And I do know that these pythons have already been doing damage to Florida’s ecosystem, right? Tell me a little bit about that.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, so if you’ve ever been to Florida, you know that there is a lot of wildlife there. For a python, the ecosystem is kind of like an all-you-can-eat buffet. So 73 different kinds of animal species have been found in python guts in Florida. They eat native birds, mammals, sometimes alligators. This one that was recently found had a deer in its stomach. Researchers call Burmese pythons an invasive apex predator, which is a pretty catchy name, frankly.

MADDIE SOFIA: It’s a title, for sure.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Some researchers are specifically concerned about how Burmese pythons interact with Florida panthers. So we’ve talked a little bit about panthers on this show. They’re an endangered species, and it’s estimated that there’s only about 200 of them left. And Florida panthers and Burmese pythons have one big thing in common– they love to eat deer. So if these pythons continue to reproduce at the scale that they have, we could see a lot of changes to the native panther population if those deer keep getting eaten.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right. OK, so is there any sort of plan for keeping track of these pythons?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, there’s a really interesting plan that is talked about in this story. So there are research teams that are out there that are dedicated to catching these invasive pythons. And a strategy that they’re using now is to use male pythons as, quote unquote, “scouts” to find female pythons during the breeding season. These males are GPS tracked, so in theory, the researchers can find where they’re going to breed and then kill them before they have more babies.

MADDIE SOFIA: Let’s end this with a story about Canada’s plastic ban. What plastics are included here, Kathleen?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, so Canada’s government made an announcement earlier this week that they are going to ban some plastics starting this December. So this plastic ban is on the manufacture and importation of what the country deems as, quote unquote, “harmful single-use plastics.” That means things like grocery bags, cutlery, and straws. It’s important to note, though, that there are some medical exemptions for single-use straws, which are important for some people who have certain medical conditions where, say, they don’t have a lot of motor control of their jaws.

But this manufacturing ban on Canada goes on things like checkout bags, cutlery, ring carriers. That ban is going to go into effect starting in December. And if that sounds like it’s really soon, it’s because it is. To let businesses who sell these items transition at a more manageable pace, the sale ban will completely go into effect in December of 2023. And then there are other items that will have until 2024 to fully phase out.

MADDIE SOFIA: Kathleen, can you give me some context here? Like, what are the stats on how much single-use plastic Canada goes through?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Yeah, so according to the Canadian government, up to 15 billion plastic shopping bags are used every year. That is billion with a B. And about 16 million plastic straws are used daily. That’s a lot. The Canadian government says that this ban, when it’s all said and done, could reduce carbon emissions by 1.8 megatons. That’s a lot of tons.

MADDIE SOFIA: So how likely is it that the US could do something like this?

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Well, as we all know very well, it’s hard to get things done here in the US.

MADDIE SOFIA: Right.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: So on a federal level, it’s unlikely that we would see something like this anytime soon. But there are some cities that have some kind of plastic ban in effect. So New York City, for example, where I am, it bans plastic shopping bags in a lot of businesses. So maybe someday we’ll have more widespread rules on single-use plastics, but probably not that soon.

MADDIE SOFIA: That’s all the time we have for now. I’d like to thank my guest, Kathleen Davis, producer for Science Friday, joining me from Brooklyn, New York. Kathleen, thanks for joining us.

KATHLEEN DAVIS: Thank you, Maddie.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

About Maddie Sofia

Maddie Sofia is a scientist and journalist. She previously hosted NPR’s daily science podcast Short Wave and the video series Maddie About Science.

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