Editorial Roundup: United States
Apr 11, 2023, 2:18 PM
Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:
The Los Angeles Times on a federal judge’s ban on abortion pill
In the most far-reaching court ruling on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and robbed women of the constitutional right to an abortion last year, a federal judge in Texas has suspended the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, the first of a two-drug regimen taken as part of a medication abortion.
U.S. District Court Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk on Friday ordered the preliminary injunction on mifepristone in a ruling on a lawsuit filed by an alliance of antiabortion groups and doctors claiming the FDA did not adequately study the drug before it was approved in 2000 and that using the medication is dangerous. The second drug, misoprostol, has other uses including preventing stomach ulcers and is less regulated. It can be used alone to terminate a pregnancy, though it is slightly less effective.
Fortunately, the ruling does not go into effect for seven days so that the federal government may file an appeal, which U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland said it will do. Adding to the uncertainty is a preliminary injunction on Friday by U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice in Spokane, Washington, barring the FDA from removing mifepristone from the market in 17 states and the District of Columbia, in response to a lawsuit arguing that the special rules that the FDA has put on mifepristone are too restrictive and should be removed. It’s not clear which injunction will prevail.
No matter the outcome, the Texas ruling is a travesty that seeks to outlaw overwhelmingly safe medication abortion across the entire country, including in states that vigorously protect abortion such as California, Oregon and New York.
If the judge’s ruling goes into effect, it will create chaos across a post-Roe nation that is already a patchwork of states that allow abortion, ban abortion and have varying restrictions in between. Medication abortion is the most common form of abortion in the first trimester of gestation and a ban on mifepristone will leave clinics across the country scrambling to decide whether to use just the second drug, misoprostol, for abortions.
Reproductive rights advocates and doctors decried this decision that ignores two decades of safe usage and oversight by the FDA. “This medicine has gone through the toughest safety reviews and has been used safely and effectively for over 20 years,” said Daniel Grossman, a faculty member in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UC San Francisco and director of a reproductive health research program there. “We need expanded access to abortion care, not court rulings based in junk science.” According to that research program, medication abortion is safer than Tylenol.
The Texas lawsuit was always just a ploy to restrict abortion access masquerading as concern over the drug’s safety. Antiabortion activists found a sympathetic federal judge and got the result they wanted. The ruling ignores good sense, sound medical judgment and more than two decades of the drug’s safe usage around the world.
Though it is among the safest drugs a person can take, and has a serious complication rate of about one third of 1%, Kacsmaryk agreed with the plaintiffs that the FDA improperly used an accelerated process for drugs intended for life-threatening illness and severe disease. He agreed with them that pregnancy is not an illness. In fact, he bought all their arguments — including that the moribund Comstock Act, the work of a 19th century anti-vice crusader, covers medication abortion pills sent through the mail.
Most troubling was that Kacsmaryk bought into the plantiffs’ questionable horror stories about women supposedly injured after taking the medication. He said the ruling would ensure “that women and girls are protected from unnecessary harm.”
In fact, this ruling is more likely to harm pregnant people seeking a safe abortion with pills by leaving them with fewer options.
More than half the people who have abortions do it by medication now, making it the most common abortion procedure in the country and the easiest to access. And that is why abortion opponents have focused on outlawing it using every argument they can dream up: It’s dangerous. The FDA didn’t study it enough. It’s against the law to send it through the mail.
None of this is about protecting women or the U.S. Postal Service. This is about denying pregnant people the right to healthcare and the ability to control their own bodies. And it should not be allowed to stand.
The New York Times on Biden’s trip to Ireland
President Biden and Bill Clinton will be among a bevy of Irish, British and American leaders traveling to Belfast to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the April 10, 1998, signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The landmark peace accord ended the 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles.”
The deal, in which American mediators played a central role, is worthy of celebration. It won a Nobel Peace Prize for two negotiators from Northern Ireland, and it stands as a paradigm for resolving seemingly intractable sectarian conflicts. Political violence has been relatively rare on the Irish island since it was signed: The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, once pockmarked with watchtowers and roadblocks, is almost undetectable, and downtown Belfast, a battlefield during the Troubles, could now be the hip center of any European capital. Public opinion in both North and South overwhelmingly supports the agreement.
But the old sectarian differences fester. Despite surveys that consistently indicate support for integration, Protestants and Catholics still live largely apart. Even if they are no longer fighting, their schools and neighborhoods remain mostly segregated.
The problems have become more complicated since Britain opted out of the European Union in 2016, leaving Northern Ireland in limbo. The Assembly and Executive that comprise the power-sharing government, one of the primary products of the Good Friday Agreement, have not been functioning for months because of the main unionist party’s dissatisfaction with the final Brexit trading arrangements.
In fact, the Assembly and Executive — the devolved Legislature and the committee that runs the devolved government of Northern Ireland, which require active participation by both unionists and nationalists — have been unable to operate for much of the time they’ve been in existence, leaving the business of government to civil servants for long stretches.
At the heart of the matter, according to political scientists, is that the Good Friday Agreement was focused largely on ending the bloodshed, and less on efforts to integrate the warring communities — the largely Protestant unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom, and the Irish nationalists, most of them Catholics, who would prefer union with the republic to the south.
The Good Friday Agreement did not, and could not, apportion blame for the Troubles, in which, as in so many such conflicts, one side’s terrorist is the other’s hero. The best it could do was to call for “sensitivity” in dealing with deep-seated cultural and symbolic differences, like flags, language, sectarian commemorations or handling the past.
Attitudes are changing, especially among the young, but slowly. Some public opinion polls in Northern Ireland have tracked a steady rise in support for Irish unification, especially since Brexit, and more people identify as neither nationalist or unionist than identify with either of those groups. Yet identification with their cause remains strong among those who still identify as nationalist or unionist.
Brexit — Britain’s break with the E.U. — fanned the old flames by threatening the unionists’ geographic links to Britain and the nationalists’ insistence on an open border between North and South. Brexit potentially meant an end to the free movement of goods between the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland was a part, and Ireland, a proud member of the European Union. Reimposing a hard land border was ruled out by all sides, leading to an arrangement to introduce checks on British goods entering Northern Irish ports.
Unionists protested that arrangement fiercely, and in February, the new British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, agreed with the E.U. to soften the terms by creating a “green lane,” without any controls, on British goods destined solely for Northern Ireland. The Windsor Framework, as it is known, easily passed in the British Parliament. But Northern Ireland’s main Protestant party, the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (D.U.P.), has refused to accept the deal and return to the power-sharing Assembly.
That is where things stand today.
It’s not clear that there is any arrangement that the D.U.P. — which opposed the original Good Friday Agreement, supported Brexit and continues to staunchly champion all the old unionist causes — would agree to. Basically, the only choice is whether trade controls are to be on land or at sea, and there’s not much more that either London or Brussels can do.
The hope among more moderate Northern Irish is that Mr. Biden’s visit to Belfast might persuade Jeffrey Donaldson, the D.U.P. leader, to relent. Mr. Biden is expected to be accompanied by Joe Kennedy III, his special economic envoy to Northern Ireland, whose presence signals the promise of American investment in the economically struggling North.
Despite the current political stalemate, the president is right to join all sides in commemorating that remarkable achievement 25 years ago, and the proud role the United States played in it. It stands as an example of what diplomacy and careful, principled negotiation is capable of achieving.
The agreement ended a bitter and cruel sectarian war that had come to seem intractable after three decades and the loss of some 3,600 lives, most of them civilian. And the key elements of the agreement — the principle of consent, power-sharing and democratic institutions — have stood the test of time and remain a model for other nations rent by internal discord. The Northern Irish know this: A recent poll found that 69 percent of them believe that the Good Friday Agreement is the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, even while 55 percent think it could be reformed in some way.
Yes, there is much work that needs to be done to realize the full promise of the Good Friday Agreement and to bring down all the walls, figurative and physical, between the people of Northern Ireland. But that is not a sign of failure; it is a lesson that a peace agreement is never final, and needs regular renewal to endure.
The Washington Post on Biden’s plan for spyware
Last week, the White House issued an executive order prohibiting federal agencies from using hacking tools that could be harnessed by foreign governments to abuse human rights — forcing firms to stop selling to bad actors or risk losing this country’s valuable business. The rules also block vendors whose products pose national security or counterintelligence risks — as well as whose services have already been leveraged against the U.S. government. This scenario is far from hypothetical: The administration has said that an astounding 50 personnel in at least 10 countries have been targeted. The number presumably includes the 11 State Department employees in Uganda whose iPhones were accessed via a tool developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity company also connected to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to break into the devices of associates of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi during the months before the journalist’s murder.
The move is immensely encouraging, and would be even more so if not for an investigation by the New York Times published only days after the announcement that reveals a secret arrangement between a U.S. government front company and a domestic NSO Group affiliate. The deal gave an unnamed agency access to a geolocation tool that can covertly track cellphones: the same tool an adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman used as part of Saudi Arabia’s dissent-crushing campaign. More troubling still, the agreement was forged only days after the Commerce Department, with much fanfare, placed NSO on a blacklist preventing U.S. firms from selling their technology to it. That action was supposed to send the signal that the United States was ready to take a stand against a company that, time and time again, has facilitated illegal investigations, intimidation and imprisonment. But within a week, one of its federal agencies had inked a contract with representatives of that same firm.
A National Security Council spokesperson told us, “We have not yet been able to validate the existence of any such contract,” and said that use of the product wouldn’t be permitted by the new order. But no one has denied that the contract does exist. The matter of who in the executive branch did know about the arrangement remains unclear. And the lack of knowledge by the NSC is in itself alarming. There are other uncertainties: Which agency purchased the tool, and for what purpose? Has it been deployed? The administration needs to be aware of all procurement and use of spyware. After all, any attempt to box out unscrupulous spyware companies globally falls apart the moment the United States shakes one of their hands.
Today, firms can offer their services for despots without facing any real consequences. NSO has sold to unambiguously authoritarian nations, but its sales to democracies have done the most damage to norms involving surveillance. See, for instance, Mexico’s spying on journalists investigating military crimes. Even when these governments go through appropriate legal channels, they contribute to the lawlessness of the larger commercial spyware market simply by buying. NSO and its peers have no incentive to stop selling to the world’s worst actors even if countries that claim to cherish civil liberties continue doing business with them.
That’s the trap the United States risks walking into if it can’t get a handle on its own use of spyware. There are legitimate uses for this technology: Infiltrating terrorist networks is an obvious example; so is espionage. But democracies have to do more than just follow those rules when they employ surveillance tools. They also have to deny licenses for export of any tools developed on their soil to any destination with a violating record — or without a framework to prevent violations — and they should refuse imports from the same set of places, and from firms willing to do business with them. Importantly, they need to do all this together if they hope to put a real dent in spyware firms’ balance sheets.
The White House kicked off a much-needed collaborative regime with this month’s executive order and with the principles that 11 participating states in this year’s Summit for Democracy agreed to on the heels of its release. (Israel, notably, wasn’t among them.) Ideally, their commitments will evolve to detail what standards countries must put in place and what uses are permissible, as well as to include more types of services than the “end-to-end software suites” offered by groups such as NSO. Plenty of mercenaries in the global market are hawking less comprehensive surveillance capabilities, or merely disclosing vulnerabilities for a fee so that the purchaser may go off and exploit them. But most important, to make this sort of system work, those who sign on must be strict — with vendors, but also with themselves.
The Wall Street Journal on Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan
Americans are heading into a holiday weekend and the press is preoccupied with President Trump’s legal travails, so naturally the Biden Administration on Thursday afternoon dumped its review of the 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Americans are unlikely to fall for 12 pages of narrative gaslighting, and the buck for that dark episode stops with President Biden.
The White House document “outlines the key decisions and challenges” associated with the departure of U.S. troops in August in 2021. Mr. Biden “believed the right thing for the country” was withdrawing all U.S. forces, the White House says, even as it blames the debacle on—wait for it—Donald Trump.
Mr. Biden’s “choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created” by Mr. Trump, the report says. President Trump “provided no plans” for conducting a final withdrawal even though the former President had agreed to leave under an ill-advised agreement with the Taliban.
Mr. Trump did want to pull troops out, and he probably would have, but Mr. Biden didn’t run for President to affirm Mr. Trump’s policies. Mr. Biden ran on being the adult in the White House, and he was under no obligation to oblige the Taliban, who had failed to honor their side of the deal with Mr. Trump. Many of Mr. Biden’s advisers tried to tell him as much, including U.S. military general officers and European allies, who preferred a residual force of a few thousand allied troops.
The White House apologia contends that “the speed with which the Taliban took over” showed a few thousand troops were insufficient, conveniently omitting Mr. Biden’s decisions that accelerated the country’s descent into chaos. Mr. Biden pulled the air support and maintenance contracting Afghan troops relied on to fight, and then chided them as unwilling to sacrifice. Political constraints on troop numbers pushed the U.S. military to shut down the air field at Bagram Air Base, a “strategic unforced error,” as a Senate report last year called it. Afghan allies literally woke up one morning at Bagram to find U.S. troops had gone.
More alarming than its fake history is the White House’s inability to connect the dots between the U.S. surrender in Afghanistan and increasing world disorder. The U.S. is not more respected after surrendering to the Taliban, despite the heavy firepower the Administration deploys to make that case: “multiple opinion surveys.”
You can draw a straight line between the debacle in Afghanistan and the failure to deter Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. Yet the only lessons the Biden Administration learned are the wrong ones. “In Ukraine,” the report notes, “we decided to evacuate personnel nearly two weeks before Russia’s invasion,” apparently unaware that this was one more signal to Mr. Putin that he could roll in without fear of a U.S. response.
The report’s fable is that the U.S. has been freed up to focus on Russia and China: “It is hard to imagine” the U.S. “would have been able to lead the response to these challenges as successfully” if troops were still in Afghanistan. But the ugly, desperate scenes in Kabul communicated to the world that America was in retreat, and the consequences of that message include Saudi doubts that the U.S. is a reliable partner and increasing aggression from Beijing in the Taiwan Strait.
Mr. Biden’s approval rating sank into the red after the catastrophe in Kabul and has never fully recovered, and voters understand whose decisions drove the horrible images they saw on the news. Mr. Biden’s report trumpets his “deliberate, intensive, rigorous and inclusive decision-making process” in Afghanistan.
That makes it all worse because it underscores that the problem was the final decision—that is, Joe Biden’s awful judgment.
The Guardian on Biden safeguarding the Good Friday agreement
In The Green and White House, an account of the ancestral ties that have linked so many American leaders to Ireland since the 19th century, Joe Biden is described as the most deeply “connected” president of all. Throughout his career, Mr. Biden has placed his Irish roots at the heart of his political identity, and played an influential role in promoting the Northern Ireland peace process.
Cometh the hour, cometh the POTUS? As he visits Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, there is widespread hope that Mr. Biden can put his backstory to profitable use at a delicate moment, along with the unique clout that goes with his office. As a kind of restless, ominous gridlock grips Northern Ireland’s body politic, that would constitute a notable success.
In recent months, the Democratic Unionist party’s ongoing boycott of the Stormont parliament has created a corrosive power vacuum at the heart of Northern Irish politics. Democratic stasis has been accompanied by a rise in politically motivated violence by dissident groups. On the eve of Mr. Biden’s visit, petrol bomb attacks on police in Derry underlined the sulphureous mood on the dissident fringes.
Mr. Biden’s personal sense of commitment is unlikely to mean he can single-handedly broker a solution to the impasse. Its root cause is structural, residing in the hard Brexit irresponsibly pursued by successive Conservative governments, which resulted in a border in the Irish Sea. Despite improvements to the Northern Ireland protocol negotiated by Rishi Sunak in the Windsor framework, Brexit has undermined the meticulous balancing of unionist and nationalist interests that lay at the core of the Good Friday agreement. Trust has been eroded; rebuilding it will be a slow process.
The immediate priority is persuading the DUP to rejoin power-sharing arrangements at Stormont. Mr. Biden will doubtless do his best to cajole. But given the party’s fears of being outflanked to its right by the still more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, any return seems highly unlikely until after the mid-May elections. Nevertheless, Mr. Biden can usefully focus minds on the merits of being on good terms with the world’s largest economy.
Writing in a unionist newspaper prior to the trip, the U.S. trade envoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kennedy, who is accompanying Mr. Biden, emphasised that over the past decade, political stability had attracted almost £1.5bn of U.S. investment to Northern Ireland. Rather than refighting old conflicts, Mr. Kennedy wrote, families and communities are interested in the opportunities that a spirit of pragmatism and compromise can bring. Overwhelming public support for the Windsor framework, which the DUP continues flatly to reject, testifies to the truth of Mr. Kennedy’s claim. That is a platform to work from.
Before flying to Belfast, Mr. Biden told reporters that the main aim of his visit was to safeguard the legacy of the Good Friday agreement. Acknowledged as a peacemaking model around the world, the power-sharing logic of the 1998 accords saved hundreds of lives that could otherwise have been lost. Northern Ireland today is a transformed place as a result of the peace dividend, and a rising proportion of the population eschews old sectarian identities. But as Mr. Biden is well aware, in the wake of Brexit’s disastrous impact, there is more work to be done.