Morning news brief
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Japan's Liberal Democratic Party and its allies won national elections.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The vote came after an assassin killed the former prime minister, Shinzo Abe. He'd been a member of the winning party. One question is who committed the attack; the other is where the ruling coalition will take the world's third-largest economy.
INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn is a frequent visitor to Japan - joins us from Seoul. Hey there, Anthony.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What do these election results mean?
KUHN: Well, the election results are actually the part of the story that was sort of expected. The ruling bloc held on to their majority in Parliament. It's a show of support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida nine months into his term, and so now he can pursue his policy agenda without having to face voters until 2025. And the ruling LDP and its allies also have a two-thirds majority, which they need to amend the constitution. And this was Abe's goal. He wanted to change the constitution to get rid of restraints on Japan's military imposed after World War II. This would be a historic shift for Japan, which Abe failed to achieve during his lifetime, but he could move closer to it in death.
INSKEEP: Just so that I understand why that would be important, Japan has these self-defense forces not formally called a military. Do they want to change that to confront China? Is that what this is about?
KUHN: Well, they want to be able to deploy it overseas in defense of allies. They want to raise defense spending. And Prime Minister Kishida said he will work towards all of these things, work to carry out Abe's goals.
INSKEEP: Oh, it changes what the military that they have can do. OK, so there's a suspect in Abe's killing. He used a homemade weapon. And a man was arrested. What's he saying?
KUHN: Well, he said not long after the shooting that his family went bankrupt and fell apart because his mother gave a lot of money to a religious group, and he blamed Shinzo Abe for supporting that group. And today, one group known as the Unification Church, founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, said that the suspect's mother was indeed a member of the church, but they declined to say anything about whether she had donated money or not. So there are still key links in this mystery that are missing.
INSKEEP: Yeah. Well, it's always difficult to get into the head of someone who does something like this. We shouldn't assume that what they do is rational, but we're trying to figure out the reason they give. So he is talking about some kind of connection between a church and politicians.
KUHN: Yes. And I wanted to find more about this, so I spoke to Jeffrey Hall. He's an expert at Japanese politics at Kanda University of International Studies near Tokyo. And he told me that the relationship between the Unification Church and Abe and his party actually goes back to Abe's grandfather, who was a prime minister in the 1960s. Here's what he said.
JEFFREY HALL: Over the decades, the Unification Church has provided voters and contributions to conservative politicians in Japan, all the way down to Abe.
KUHN: But Jeffrey Hall cautioned us that we need to reserve judgment and not point fingers until more details of this case become clear.
INSKEEP: Yeah, always good advice, but interesting threads and clues there. Where does the story go from here?
KUHN: Well, Abe's family is going to hold a private wake at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo. There will be a family funeral at the temple on Tuesday and a public memorial at a later date to be determined.
INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks for your reporting. Really appreciate it.
KUHN: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who is today in Seoul.
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INSKEEP: To this country now. The majority of people getting COVID are contracting the BA.5 strain.
MARTIN: Yeah, this is the latest subvariant of omicron, and it now dominates COVID strains here in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it accounts for more than half of all infections. Many are reinfections. And there's an increase in hospitalizations.
INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us, as she so often does on Mondays, to tell us what's going on with the pandemic. Hey there, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what is known about the BA.5 strain?
AUBREY: Well, you know, at a time when people use rapid tests at home, it's kind of hard to know just how many people are infected with it.
AUBREY: But one indicator that cases are rising is that hospitalizations are rising. About 31,000 people are in the hospital with COVID. Admissions are up about 5% or so compared to last week. And reinfections appear to be on the rise, too. Some people who got COVID this winter are getting it again. I spoke to Bob Wachter. He's a physician at UC San Francisco. He says that BA.5 is just highly transmissible.
BOB WACHTER: Not only is it more infectious, but your prior immunity doesn't count for as much as it used to. And that means that the old saw that I just had COVID a month ago, and so I have COVID immunity superpowers; I'm not going to get it again - that no longer holds.
AUBREY: So that is just not good to hear. Speaking as someone who just had COVID last month, I definitely don't want it again.
INSKEEP: Feeling any better?
AUBREY: Feeling fine, actually.
INSKEEP: OK, OK. Well, thank you. I'm glad you're - glad you've recovered. So this is more infectious. That's not good. But is it more dangerous?
AUBREY: There is no evidence that BA.5 causes any more serious illness. And though many people are getting infected, the impact of BA.5, Steve, will not likely be on the scale of what we saw last winter. We will be able to manage better. I talked to Anna Durbin. She's a physician at Johns Hopkins about this. And she says the combination of prior infection and vaccinations is protective to some degree, and treatments are better. Last winter, we had about 3,000 deaths a day. Now the U.S. is averaging about 300.
ANNA DURBIN: Most people have some underlying immunity that is helpful in fighting the virus. We have antivirals. And I think because of that, we're not seeing a rise in deaths, and that's very reassuring. That tells me that this virus, even BA.5, is not so divergent that it is escaping all arms of the immune system.
AUBREY: She says new booster shots that can specifically target omicron that we could see in the fall should be helpful. They won't halt all infections or reinfections, but they will help prevent serious illness.
INSKEEP: Very briefly - what are the prospects for people at this point who get COVID again and again?
AUBREY: You know, they tend to have a higher risk of long COVID symptoms. I spoke to Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly of the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System about this. He saw a whole bunch of conditions in people in the months after they had multiple reinfections.
ZIYAD AL-ALY: Some respiratory conditions - you know, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, you know, brain fog - and a lot of other conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. So even if you're vaccinated, it is still best - it's absolutely best - to avoid reinfection.
AUBREY: There's a lot of BA.5 out there, Steve, so he says it would be wise to take steps to reduce your exposure.
INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks.
AUBREY: Thank you, Steve.
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MARTIN: The Supreme Court may have tossed abortion decisions back to the states, but groups against abortion rights are still making a nationwide push.
INSKEEP: They spent almost 50 years laying the groundwork for so-called trigger laws to go into effect once federal abortion rights were overturned.
INGRID DURAN: We were able to really get a little bit more creative with our laws and seeing just how far can we go to effectively protect unborn children.
MARTIN: That's Ingrid Duran of the National Right to Life Committee. Utah's among several states with a trigger law. A federal judge is hearing arguments today over whether to let the measure go into effect after temporarily halting the restrictions. But how did we get here?
INSKEEP: NPR's Ximena Bustillo is following their efforts. Welcome.
XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: Who are the two groups you are focusing on here?
BUSTILLO: I focused on the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Freedom. These are two groups that for decades have been working with their staffs to craft legislation for statehouses to really heavily restrict abortion or outright completely ban it on the hope that one day Roe would be overturned. The way that these groups work is that they write their own bills that state lawmakers can just copy and paste and put their name on, or they can kind of take independent parts and provisions to make into their own bills that might eventually be signed into law. I spoke to Elizabeth Nash, the state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that supports abortions. Here's what she said.
ELIZABETH NASH: So we saw these legislatures adopting restriction after restriction, and that moved states to then start thinking about abortion bans because most of these states had adopted pretty much every restriction in the book.
BUSTILLO: They also have state affiliates that will do much of the same work. These organizations were successful in using their legal service, using their knowledge base, using their ability to lobby, to incrementally set the groundwork for total abortion bans in some states in the hope that Roe would be overturned.
INSKEEP: Oh, that's interesting. So they were working at the state level with an idea of how the bills passed there might be judged by the Supreme Court eventually. How did their strategy evolve over all these many years?
BUSTILLO: Right. Well, whether it's the local level or the national level, the makeup of the Supreme Court absolutely mattered on the risk that there would someday be a challenge and also because it's not practical policy to pass a bill that's immediately going to be blocked in court. Then your law cannot be enacted. It can't work.
So, for example, when Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was perceived as a swing vote on abortion issues, was on the court, these groups introduced bills all over the country that would ban abortion after 20 weeks because Kennedy was seen as more likely to vote in favor of a bill like that versus a bill that would completely ban abortion. Then we saw the strategy change again. Former President Trump was able to place three very conservative justices on the court, and that gave activists a lot of room to work with. Ingrid Duran, director of the Department of State Legislation at the National Right to Life Committee, put it this way.
DURAN: Because with Kennedy, we saw him as a swing vote. But once we got Gorsuch, once we've got Amy Coney Barrett and Kavanaugh, that swing vote idea went away, and we were able to really get a little bit more creative with our laws and seeing just how far can we go to effectively protect unborn children.
BUSTILLO: And in 2019, we saw a new wave of trigger laws be introduced and passed in states after no movement since 2007.
INSKEEP: And now those trigger laws, of course, are going into effect. So what do these groups do now that the Supreme Court has ruled?
BUSTILLO: Yeah, well, the legal environment is completely different. So that means a new policy strategy. And we'll see this in each individual state as well, as groups will want to defend the abortion laws that are now in place, like those trigger laws, but they will also begin to focus on states that have not banned abortion or have not implemented restrictions to see how far they can go now that there's a new legal landscape.
INSKEEP: NPR's Ximena Bustillo. Thanks so much.
BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.