Episode 22

Hello and welcome back to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, the podcast for intellectually adventurous advanced English learners and those who teach them. 

At the end of each episode I’ll read out that day’s key vocabulary along with definitions and examples. Each episode has an interactive transcript available at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. The transcript includes the full text of the show and a flash card set to learn the episode vocabulary by heart. This week I’m using H5P flashcards instead of Quizlet, which allows me to include hints for each question. I would love to know what you think of this new format. At the end of the show I’ll be reminding you of my email address and I would particularly appreciate feedback on this change. 

Apart from providing you with self-study materials, the interactive transcript contains links to all of the sources that I mention. In today’s episode you’ll find links to articles by Reuters, the BBC, The New Yorker as well as to a podcast episode from National Public Radio. 

Last week I talked to you about an important court ruling in the US that overturned the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of the potentially cancer-causing herbicide and pesticide glyphosate, and how this was an important victory for the environment and human health. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently ordered the EPA to carry out a new safety study to examine the health impact of Roundup, the weed killer containing glyphosate that is the most widely-used pesticide in the world today. 

There have been some further developments since last week. On Monday Reuters reported on a second case in which the Supreme Court of the United States upheld lower courts’ awarding of damages, that is financial compensation, to cancer victims who claimed that Roundup was to blame for their illness. If a court upholds a previous decision, it states that it was correct and confirms its validity

So, on the environmental front we have even more good news since last week. But this week we’re going to be focusing on another Supreme Court of the United States decision that has been getting a lot more coverage in the news. Last week the court overturned Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision from 1973, in which the Supreme Court had decided that the constitution protected women’s right to choose an abortion.  

A landmark is a building or monument that defines a place and makes it distinctive and memorable. Think of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. In law you’ll often hear people talking about a landmark decision when a court’s ruling redefines an area of the law that fundamentally changes the legal landscape. Roe v. Wade was such a decision, and it’s hard for non-Americans to understand quite how important this decision has been for the country generally and especially for generations of women who have benefited from it. 

As a result of last week’s decision, American women’s reproductive rights are entirely in the hands of the states, creating what we refer to as a legal patchwork. A patchwork literally refers to pieces of cloth that are sewn together to form a quilt or blanket. When we speak of a legal patchwork we are referring to different regions, states or countries, whose legal norms are not harmonised, and we use this especially to describe a situation in which this lack of uniformity leads to inconvenience or even suffering. 

A close-up of a patchwork quilt.

A legal patchwork: when rules or laws in neighbouring jurisdictions conflict or are not harmonised.

As I was saying, abortion is now in the hands of the states, which are free to ban or restrict this medical procedure. Many so-called red states, that is states that tend to vote Republican and have more conservative – some would say ignorant – mores, put in place trigger laws that have reinstated abortion restrictions or bans. According to the BBC thirteen states have such laws, which are called trigger laws because they were passed before the Supreme Court ruling and thus could only come into effect, or be triggered, once federal abortion protections were struck down

Now, the obvious solution would be for the federal government to pass a law granting women the right to abortion, but such a law would not be able to get passed in the Senate. An article published yesterday in the New Yorker, linked in the transcript, goes into why the Democrats’ hands are tied. In other words, they want to take action but are prevented from doing so due to circumstances beyond their control.

Interestingly enough, major American companies such as JP Morgan Chase, Tesla, Amazon and Disney have publicly announced that they will help pay for their female employees’ to travel to a state where abortion services are legal. That such mainstream companies are openly trying to help women circumvent abortion restrictions suggests that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court are out of step with public opinion on this issue. It should be pointed out that of the nine judges on the court, all of whom are appointed for life, that is until they die, six are conservative and three are liberal. Bear in mind that in American English, liberal means left-wing or progressive. Donald Trump was able to name two justices to the court – supreme court judges are referred to as justices – which has helped tip the balance in favour of conservative attitudes.

The US Supreme Court

Is the US Supreme Court out of step with public opinion when it comes to abortion?

If you’re interested in finding out more about this issue, I highly recommend listening to an episode by NPR’s show Shortwave, called The Public Health Implications Of Overturning Roe V. Wade. It’s about a decade-long empirical study into the physical, emotional and financial impact of women either being given or denied access to abortion. The hosts discuss how key court decisions on reproductive health often make assumptions about abortion, and assume that a high number of women will come to regret their decision. Luckily, rather than courts relying on the assumptions of their own judges, we now have access to actual data about the impact of abortion. 

Another reading I would also recommend, is a short piece by NBC entitled, “Abortion rates go down when countries make it legal”, which refers to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, which you can view from the interactive transcript. There’s a useful colour coded map of the world showing abortion rates by country, and it illustrates how restricting women’s reproductive rights actually leads to more abortions not fewer. Definitely some food for thought.

Vocabulary Summary

uphold: if a court upholds a decision made by another court, it states that the decision was correct – antonym, overrule

a landmark decision/ruling: a very important decision/ruling

a legal/regulatory patchwork: a combination of different legal or regulatory systems that are not harmonised and may contradict each other 

mores: (formal) the customs, social behaviour and moral values of a particular group

strike down: decide that a law or rule is illegal and should be ignored

my hands are tied: if someone’s hands are tied, they cannot help in a particular situation because of rules, laws etc

circumvent: avoid a problem or rule that restricts you, especially in a clever or dishonest way – often used to show disapproval

be out of step with: have ideas or actions that are different from those of other people, often when referring to the majority in a society

bear something in mind: remember a fact or piece of information that is important or could be useful in the future

tip the balance in favour of: something influence the outcome of an event in a decisive way

Thanks for listening. If you have any comments or questions please get in touch by sending me an email to podcast@BetterLanguageLearning.com. If you’ve enjoyed the show, share it with a like-minded friend and give me a review on Apple Podcasts.


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