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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden heads to Japan today for the G-7 summit.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Now, at first, he was supposed to go from there to other meetings in Asia, but with no deal in sight with House Republicans over the impending debt ceiling, Biden switched up his itinerary.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: However, I'm cutting my trip short. I'm postponing the Australia portion of the trip and my stop in Papua New Guinea in order to be back for the final negotiations with congressional leaders.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Detrow is in Hiroshima, Japan, awaiting Biden's arrival and joins us now. Good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

FADEL: OK, so let's start with what's not happening. What was Biden going to be doing in Australia and Papua New Guinea?

DETROW: Australia was going to be meeting - what's called the quad. That's the U.S., Japan, Australia and India. It's a group of like minded democracies in the region that's all about containing China. So Biden and the other leaders were going to be meeting at the Sydney Opera House. Sounds really picturesque, right? So that's not going to happen. But Biden will see these other leaders at the G-7 and will likely talk to them there.

FADEL: And Papua New Guinea - what was that intended - how was that intended to fit into Biden's travels?

DETROW: Yeah. That was supposed to be an effort to extend U.S. friendship and economic support to Pacific island nations like Papua New Guinea. China has been aggressively courting Pacific island nations in recent years, delivering a ton of economic assistance, in some cases military assistance and agreements. And that has led the U.S. and its allies like Australia to really scramble to also make and keep friends in places like Papua New Guinea. I talked to Patricia Kim about this. She's a China expert at the Brookings Institution, and she says all of this maneuvering is happening because both China and the U.S. see the South Pacific as a key strategic area. They both want to have influence and also have the ability to move around military assets and ships as needed.

PATRICIA KIM: And to do this, we need to have a good relationship with island states in the region to be able to patrol the waterways, to be able to dock, refuel and restock naval vessels.

DETROW: And in this big picture, Papua New Guinea is a really interesting country because it's been developing increasingly close economic ties with China. And as those have tightened, Papua New Guinea withdrew ties to Taiwan. So suddenly you had this scramble from Australia and the U.S. to keep pace, and this canceled trip is really a setback to that effort. This had been major news in Papua New Guinea, even though Biden was only going to spend about three hours there. The country had declared the day of the visit a national holiday, and now it's been cancelled.

FADEL: Oh, wow. That's tough. Now, Biden is still going to Japan, though, where you are. What's the focus going to be at the G-7?

DETROW: It's going to be a long list. Japan's ambassador to the U.S., Koji Tomita, has worked at several of these G-7 summits, and he joked at a recent press conference that the final statements that leaders issue always grows and grows and grows and grows.

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KOJI TOMITA: We officials always start with the ambition that we will produce something short and punchy, but our ambition is always defeated somehow, you know? We end up producing a, you know, 20-page-plus document.

FADEL: That's true.

DETROW: A little too real as a journalist, huh?

FADEL: Right.

DETROW: But, you know, Japan's the host country here. And its leaders have talked a lot about wanting to make sure that the G-7 focuses on helping less-wealthy countries. So Japan will be pushing for firm commitments on food security and infrastructure funding. But front and center, you're going to be hearing a lot of talk about the rules-based international order, which is foreign policy speak for countering aggressive actions by Russia and China. So once again, this will be a meeting where the war in Ukraine will be a top focus. You'll see a push from the U.S. to really end the summit with more steps to further isolate Russia from the rest of the world economy. And Biden will also be working to try and continue getting other nations on board to have countering China as a top issue in their minds.

FADEL: White House correspondent Scott Detrow in Hiroshima, Japan.

Scott, I hope you get some time to enjoy the food and the country in between work. Thanks for your reporting.

DETROW: I hope so, too. Thank you.

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FADEL: The abortion pill known as mifepristone, or Mifeprex, is at the center of another court case that could end up at the Supreme Court.

MARTÍNEZ: Today, attorneys are gathering in New Orleans at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue a case that could remove this medication from the U.S. market completely. Together with misoprostol, it's a medication that's been used for decades to manage miscarriages and provide abortions. It's now the most common method of abortion across the U.S.

FADEL: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to lay out what this lawsuit is about and what's happening today.

Hi, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. OK, so jog people's memories here. This is a case that started in Texas and was all over the news last month.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, exactly. So it's a case filed originally in a district court in Amarillo, Texas. A conservative group called the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine is challenging the FDA's original approval of the medication more than 20 years ago. And early last month, a federal judge named Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with the full argument and would have put a hold on the approval of mifepristone as the legal case proceeded, which caused a huge reaction, as you might remember.

FADEL: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This medication is used for abortion and miscarriages regularly, and for about a week, no one knew if it was about to get pulled off of the shelves. So finally, the Supreme Court intervened, and mifepristone is still available for now.

FADEL: And what happens today?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Today, there will be oral arguments in the case. A panel of three judges in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear each side's arguments. Yesterday, I spoke with Erik Baptist, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney who is challenging FDA's approval process for mifepristone.

ERIK BAPTIST: We will urge the court to uphold everything that the district court held - that the approval in 2000 for mifepristone was unlawful for multiple reasons.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Those reasons have to do with the procedures the FDA followed and safety issues, he says. I also spoke yesterday with Rabia Muqaddam, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is not part of the lawsuit but supports the Department of Justice's defense of mifepristone. She says the plaintiffs have put forth junk science to support their arguments.

RABIA MUQADDAM: The other aspect of this case that is really preposterous is that none of the plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are actually suffering any harm, so they don't have standing to bring this case.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The oral arguments are happening this afternoon in a federal courtroom in New Orleans, and audio from the hearing will be live-streamed and open to the public.

FADEL: So any predictions about what's going to happen?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the Fifth Circuit is known as a conservative court, and this panel of three judges has already shown in their earlier decision last month that they're persuaded by at least some of the challengers' arguments. For instance, they used the term chemical abortion in that ruling, which is an anti-abortion movement term that the plaintiffs used to describe the use of this medication, which is pretty charged language. So the pharmaceutical industry and reproductive rights supporters and former FDA officials who all support mifepristone are bracing for a decision that says access should be limited, at least in some way. And this case is about mifepristone everywhere, not just in states that limit abortion. So the stakes are huge.

FADEL: Yeah. The stakes are huge. Could anything change right away?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Probably not. The Supreme Court has put a hold on any changes to access to mifepristone for a good long while. OB-GYNs say patients are quite confused about this. So this is an important thing to emphasize. Mifepristone remains legal and available right now. Attorneys in this case expect a ruling from these judges in the next few weeks or months. It will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court, which may hear arguments in the fall and issue a decision next spring. But that's all just a guess. Anything can happen.

FADEL: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

I'm sure you'll be back soon to talk about the continuing legal back and forth on this. Thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

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FADEL: Ukraine has been talking for weeks about a spring counteroffensive, and there are signs that it may have already started.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Ukrainian forces claim they've made advances in the battle for Bakhmut, a city in the east that Russia has been trying to capture for more than 10 months. This comes as Russia is launching more missiles at Ukraine as it attempts to degrade Ukrainian defenses.

FADEL: Joining us to discuss the recent developments is NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis, who is in the central city of Dnipro.

Hi, Joanna.

FADEL: Hi, Leila. So let's start with Bakhmut. For weeks now, we've heard Russian forces control most of the city. Has anything changed?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So inside the city, Leila, the situation is pretty much the same. The Russians still control most of it. The fighting continues - lots of dead soldiers on both sides, with the city in absolute ruins. But outside Bakhmut, Ukraine says their soldiers are actually gaining. Ukraine's deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, says Ukrainian troops have recently taken back 7.5 square miles of land just outside the city.

FADEL: So, Joanna, does this mean that the counteroffensive may be starting, then?

KAKISSIS: So some military analysts, especially here, are saying as much. But the truth is we don't know. President Zelenskyy has said that the counteroffensive will start soon, but Ukraine still needs more weapons from the West. Ukrainians are very eager for this counteroffensive to start. We saw that in Kherson, where we just spent a few days reporting. Ukrainian forces liberated the city of Kherson in November. But Russian forces are less than a mile away on the other side of the river, and they attack the city nearly every day. We were there shortly after 26 people died in missile attacks, including an attack at a supermarket where we shop when we're in town. We spoke to Special Forces soldiers in Kherson who say, you know, we've been laying the groundwork for a counteroffensive for months, and they say that they're ready.

FADEL: And what about the situation for Russian forces? Are they making any progress?

KAKISSIS: So with the exception of Bakhmut, they've made very little progress on the ground. But Russia has been attacking Ukraine with a lot of missiles in the past few days. On Monday night, the Russians launched a barrage of missiles and drones that included six hypersonic missiles, which Russia claims are almost impossible to shoot down. Yet Ukraine says its air defenses, which include Western weapons - that these air defenses got them all. And now the West is promising more weapons after Zelenskyy's whirlwind trip to European capitals in the past week. That trip might actually give Ukraine the advanced F-16 fighter jets that Zelenskyy has long sought.

FADEL: So before I let you go, I also wanted to ask about the deal that's been allowing Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea to avoid a global food crisis. Where does that stand right now?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. There's a chance, Leila, that that deal is going to collapse. Russia has been saying for months that it doesn't like the deal, that it has hidden sanctions on its own agricultural products. This deal was brokered last year by the U.N. and Turkey to help get Ukrainian grain, which helps feed the world, out of a war zone. And the last ship before this deal expires is expected to leave Ukraine today.

FADEL: NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis reporting in Dnipro on the possible start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Thank you for your reporting.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.