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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Archie Bland

Tuesday briefing: Bombshell leak that could indicate the end of Roe v Wade

A crowd of people gather outside the US Supreme Court in Washington DC on Monday night.
A crowd of people gather outside the US supreme court in Washington DC on Monday night. Photograph: Anna Johnson/AP

Good morning. A truly seismic story has broken in the US overnight: the leak of a draft majority opinion which appears to show that the supreme court has privately voted to overturn half a century of protection for abortion rights.

The leak, to the Politico website, was immediately the subject of intense textual and legal analysis by US journalists and experts trying to corroborate its authenticity. It would be the worst security breach in the court’s history.

But while caution is obviously the right approach on such a momentous story, there was every sign – from the document’s formatting and footnotes to the distinctive tone of conservative author Justice Samuel Alito – that it is legitimate. There was no comment from the supreme court itself.

The court could still vote the other way. But if the end of Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling which enshrined the constitutional right to an abortion, does happen, it would be news of generational significance for American women and a huge blow for supporters of reproductive rights around the world.

With protesters immediately descending on the supreme court building to voice their fury over the news, today’s newsletter explains what’s at stake, and what happens next. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Asylum | Priti Patel may face a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of Ukrainians stuck in a “chaotic” visa backlog as they seek to come to the UK. Only 15% of the 74,700 Ukrainians to apply under the sponsorship route have made it to Britain.

  2. Politics | Councillors in the UK face abuse, threats and intimidation as part of a “truly toxic” atmosphere that discourages new candidates, local government bodies have warned.

  3. Housing | The government could revive Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme to make up to 2.5m households eligible to buy their homes at a 70% discount. Housing experts said the proposals risked reducing the stock of affordable homes.

  4. Suisse Secrets | Swiss politicians are to debate the country’s controversial banking secrecy law amid ongoing pressure to scrap rules allowing the prosecution of whistleblowers. The debate follows a leak of data on potentially criminal Credit Suisse clients to a consortium of outlets including the Guardian.

  5. Theatre | The curtain will come down on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s West End musical Cinderella less than a year after its opening, causing dismay among some cast members who had no notice of the closure. The show has suffered heavy losses during its lockdown-affected run.

In depth: the end of the US right to an abortion?

Protesters outside the supreme court in Washington early on Tuesday.
Protesters outside the US supreme court in Washington early on Tuesday. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP


What happened?

A draft supreme court opinion, apparently by conservative justice Samuel Alito, was leaked to Politico in a story published late Monday night. It appears to show that the court is preparing to rule in favour of Mississippi in a case over whether the state can outlaw nearly all abortions at and after 15 weeks gestation – a direct challenge to the guarantee of abortion rights enshrined in Roe v Wade.

The 98-page document, which includes 118 footnotes and a 31-page appendix on historical state abortion laws, was published in full. “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” it says. “Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences.”

It says Roe v Wade “must be overruled” and goes on: “It is time to heed the constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.”


What is Roe v Wade?

Roe v Wade is the court decision which protects the right to an abortion in the US up to the point a foetus can survive outside the womb, widely regarded as 24 weeks gestation. A full term pregnancy is 39 weeks gestation. The 1973 ruling is among the most controversial in American history and has been subjected to many legal challenges over the year – but survived until now.

For more details on the challenge to the law currently under consideration, take a look at Jessica Glenza’s explainer from December.


What does the leak tell us about the court’s decision?

While the opinion is purportedly a draft, it would have been written following a vote on the question at hand by the court – and indicates that a majority of justices reached the same view as Alito. Politico reported that four other Republican-appointed justices supported the decision, meaning a total of at least five votes on the 9-member court.

After such a vote, a justice is assigned the majority opinion and then writes a draft, which is then circulated and subject to edits. It is possible for changes to be made to the opinion, or even for votes to change, before the court’s final ruling, which is expected in the next couple of months.


How significant is a leak of a draft supreme court ruling?

The Guardian’s Washington correspondent David Smith called the leak “stunning and unprecedented” and said it would be “the worst security breach” in the court’s history. Theories abounded over the likely source of the leak, from a clerk for a liberal justice hoping to raise public pressure on the court before it publishes its decision to a conservative who wants to soften the impact of the decision when it comes – in other words, nobody knows.

A tweet from Scotusblog, a respected news and analysis site, said that it was “impossible to overstate the earthquake this will cause inside the Court, in terms of the destruction of trust among the Justices and staff. This leak is the gravest, most unforgivable sin.”


How did reproductive-rights advocates react to the news?

With fury. A BuzzFeed reporter posted a video of about 200 protesters outside the court chanting slogans like “abortion is healthcare” and “my body, my choice”. Another video showed somebody urging attenders: “If you feel like fucking screaming, then just scream”.


What about politicians?

Democrats said that overturning Roe v Wade would be a catastrophe. They were led by House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, who issued a joint statement saying such a move would be “an abomination, one of the worst and most damaging decisions in modern history”.

They also immediately sought to make Roe v Wade an issue for crucial upcoming midterm elections: Christie Roberts, Democratic senatorial campaign executive director, said that “At this critical moment, we must protect and expand Democrats’ Senate majority with the power to confirm or reject supreme court justices”. Republicans by turns praised the apparent vote and condemned the leak itself.


Now what?

It is worth reiterating that it is still possible that votes could change and mean that the apparent draft opinion remains just that – a draft. But if the supreme court does rule along the lines suggested by the leaked document, the consequences will be rapid and hugely consequential.

Because the US congress has never enshrined the right to terminate a pregnancy, the overturning of Roe v Wade would mean individual states can immediately make their own decisions over the way forward. Twenty-six of them would be expected to move quickly to do so, with many having “trigger” laws on the books which would automatically come into effect in those circumstances. That means that women in those states would immediately face severe restrictions on their ability to have an abortion, and the US would become one of only four countries to curtail that right in nearly 30 years.

What else we’ve been reading

  • If you’re working your way through Netflix’s final dump of Ozark episodes, you’ll enjoy Stuart Jeffries’ farewell to “some of the most rewarding TV around”. And if you didn’t spend half the weekend gorging the lot of it, rest assured: it sticks the landing.

  • As the question of how the war in Ukraine will end becomes more pressing, Orysia Lutseyvych of Chatham House argues that “a long-term simmering conflict that locks Ukraine in a grey zone of instability” is no better than defeat.

  • Simon Hattenstone spoke to Graham Nash – as in, Crosby, Stills and … – about sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, and why he’d kill Vladimir Putin given half a chance. Too many amazing quotes to list, so click here instead.

  • Tens of thousands of people have faced deportation from the US over convictions which were later overturned. Sam Levin’s piece on Sandra Castaneda, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit and is still facing deportation, justifies the term ‘Kafkaesque’.

  • Why is it so hard to give up sugar? This long read by Raj Telhan, a doctor, is both absorbing personal history and examination of the roots of our obsession.


  • Snooker | Ronnie O’Sullivan beat Judd Trump 18-13 to win the snooker world championship. O’Sullivan overcame a spirited comeback from Trump to go level with Stephen Hendry’s record of seven world titles.

  • Football | Russia’s bid to host the men’s European Championship has been rejected and their team will be replaced by Portugal in the women’s tournament this summer, Uefa said.

  • Athletics | Sir Mo Farah said his career as an elite athlete is “for sure” over after a shock defeat by a club runner in a 10,000 metre race on Monday. The amateur who won, Ellis Cross, had been turned down for an elite spot in the race.

The front pages

The Guardian front page 3 May 2022
The Guardian front page 3 May 2022 Photograph: Guardian

The Guardian leads with “Patel faces mass legal action from Ukrainians stuck in visa backlog”. The Telegraph also focuses on the war in Ukraine with “Johnson: Ukraine is ready for its finest hour”. The Mail has “Where have our GPs gone?”, while the Times goes with “Rising inflation to blow £7,000 hole in pensions”. The i newspaper has “Tories hit by infighting on eve of election” and the Daily Express leads with “Boris’ right to buy plan is a vote winner”. The Mirror reports on the Madeline McCann disappearance with “Maddie prime suspect ‘a danger to society’”. The Financial Times has “Johnson enlisted for last-ditch bid to wrestle Arm into listing”. And the Sun says “Queen’s guards let fake priest stay night”.

Today in Focus

Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of (left to right) Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Rebekah Vardy, judge Mr Justice Warby and David Sherborne, representing Coleen Rooney, at the Royal Courts of Justice.
Court artist sketch by Elizabeth Cook of (left to right) Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Rebekah Vardy, judge Mr Justice Warby and David Sherborne, representing Coleen Rooney, at the Royal Courts of Justice. Photograph: Elizabeth Cook/PA

The Wagatha Christie case – part two

As the so-called ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial approaches, neither side is backing down from a case that has legal fees running into the millions, says media editor Jim Waterson.

Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson

Martin Rowson’s cartoon.
Martin Rowson’s cartoon. Illustration: Martin Rowson/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Elderly people are evacuated from the hospice in the village of Chasiv Yar in Ukraine’s Donetsk district.
Elderly people are evacuated from the hospice in the village of Chasiv Yar in Ukraine’s Donetsk district. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Good news has been thin on the ground in Ukraine these past few months – but one bright spot has been the generosity of those horrified by the actions of Russia and what it has meant for the citizens of the country. Take this story about a nursing home in Donbas that the Guardian first wrote about in April – that story inspired a Ukrainian expat in New Orleans to raise the funds necessary to rehome the elderly residents in a disused school. “The biggest chunk of the money will go towards making the accommodation suitable for the old people,” said the nursing home’s director, Ievhen Tkachov.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

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