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News brief: abortion law blocked, debt limit fix, caregivers' COVID deaths

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The anti-abortion law in Texas has been put on hold, but it is unclear if people seeking abortions will actually be able to get them.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We talk here of a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks. It was elaborately designed in ways to make it hard to bring a lawsuit to stop it. Still, the U.S. Justice Department sued, and last night a federal judge granted a request to temporarily halt the law while court proceedings continue. Attorney General Merrick Garland called the decision a, quote, "victory for women in Texas and for the rule of law."

MARTIN: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us this morning. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Exactly what did the court do here?

JOHNSON: Judge Robert Pitman said Texas had concocted what he calls an unprecedented scheme to block most abortions in the country's second-largest state. The judge said Texas had drafted this law intentionally to make it hard for federal courts to review any legal challenges. And he found the U.S. Justice Department had the right to sue because some federal employees and agencies could be exposed to liability under this law and, importantly, because the federal government was fighting to vindicate people's fundamental constitutional rights. The judge went so far as to say, this court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right. And he issued a preliminary injunction. No civil lawsuits can be filed, accepted or ruled on by state court clerks or judges while litigation in this case continues, the judge said.

MARTIN: OK, so Judge Pitman says that this was an unprecedented scheme - his words - to block most abortions in Texas. Explain that scheme. I mean, explain why the law is so controversial.

JOHNSON: Well, in bans almost all abortions in the state after about six weeks of pregnancy, with no exception for rape, sexual abuse or incest. Six weeks is when many people don't even know they're pregnant. The law allows private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against anyone who helps a woman get an abortion, like an Uber driver, and to collect at least $10,000 in damages if they win in court. Of course, the Justice Department says this law is unconstitutional and also that it violates decades of Supreme Court precedent on abortion.

MARTIN: What effect has this law had on people there? I mean, it's been in effect for 36 days, right?

JOHNSON: It has. And abortion providers say it's put people in some terrible and desperate situations. They've had to turn patients away crying. And, of course, people from Texas have been frantically trying to get abortions in other states, like Oklahoma or Kansas or Colorado or New Mexico. The judge in this case cited evidence as many as half or three-quarters of appointments in some of these states have been filled by people from Texas. But some Texans can't afford to travel, so the providers say they're in an impossible situation.

MARTIN: OK, so now the Justice Department has won this temporary halt to the law. Does that mean people in Texas who want abortions can get them?

JOHNSON: Well, almost immediately, the Texas attorney general filed a notice of appeal in the case. They're trying to get to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is a very conservative court. But abortions might not instantly resume because doctors fear they could be sued unless this is permanently resolved. Whole Woman's Health, which has several clinics in Texas, says it's working with staff and doctors to resume providing the full scope of abortion care as soon as possible, potentially up to 18 weeks, but it tweeted that there's a long road ahead. And abortion rights opponents also see more ahead. The group Texas Right to Life said they're confident this law is going to withstand legal challenge.

MARTIN: Are we likely to see this go to the Supreme Court, Carrie?

JOHNSON: It's quite likely that this case gets back to the Supreme Court. And, of course, Rachel, the court's already going to review a different law in Mississippi that seeks to ban abortions after 15 weeks. That's going to be heard in December.

MARTIN: NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right, Congress appears to be inching ever so slowly to a deal that keeps the U.S. government paying its bills.

INSKEEP: Senate leaders say they could vote soon to increase the debt limit, though just for a few weeks, which would put off the fight until sometime around Thanksgiving. Because the holidays, of course, is the time when you want to have a debate that could destroy the U.S. economy. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki says this is not the White House's first choice.

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JEN PSAKI: If we're looking at the best options, why kick the can down the road a couple of more weeks? Why create an additional layer of uncertainty? Why not just get it done now?

MARTIN: Kicking the can - got to love it. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell has been following all of this and joins us this morning. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: I don't get why delaying this whole thing for a couple of months is helpful.

SNELL: Well, you are not alone. There are plenty of senators who also agree with that. You know, but this is kind of still a problem that senators have to figure out how to navigate, and a few weeks gives them the opportunity to, you know, avoid immediate threats of default because they are still somehow in a fight about the process for getting this done. You know, the threat of default is very real. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned that default or a downgrade could cause a recession, and this is all at a time when the economy is really hardly on steady ground. But leaders are fighting about process, and they're basically arguing about who should take the blame for the current level of debt in the country.

What's happening right now is that Republicans pitched an idea to, you know, get out of the way and let Democrats pass a short-term increase right now for the debt limit. And that's based on a dollar figure, not a date. So they would say that, you know, they have a certain number of dollars of debt that they can continue to pay before they have to do something more long-term. But one of the terms of the deal was that Republicans want Democrats to accept that any long-term suspension of the debt limit would have to be done using budget reconciliation, which is a tool that Democrats have already said they don't want to use.

MARTIN: Yeah, so we've been talking for weeks about how Democrats don't want to do this. They don't want to use reconciliation. Are they changing their mind?

SNELL: Nope, they are not. They say they are fine with a short-term plan, but they say it doesn't change their feelings about reconciliation. You know, Bernie Sanders, the chairman of the Budget Committee, flat-out said they wouldn't go along with reconciliation. So they're in this limbo waiting for somebody to blink again. And so they don't have a full deal yet, in part because they're still working out those details. They've only got about 10 days to go before the date when the Treasury Department thinks they will not be able to pay their bills anymore.

MARTIN: Right. So what is likely to change then between now and December?

SNELL: Well, Congress does love to have a fight at the holidays because it's kind of a battering ram, and they get to force people to cave in the interest of going home to their families, which is not exactly something that gives, you know, the markets or everyday people a whole lot of faith, right?

MARTIN: Nope.

SNELL: You know, it also gives Democrats more time to weaken Republican defenses - if you ask Democrats, they say that's what's going to happen - gives Democrats time to use reconciliation to do what they actually want to do with it, which is pass the rest of President Biden's agenda. But Republicans also think that this whole time could give them time to harden their positions and make sure that people in the American public believe that Democrats are responsible for trillions in new spending and absolutely need to handle the votes on their own.

MARTIN: All right, NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell doing the work this morning. Thank you. We appreciate it.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

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MARTIN: All right, we've got some news now on a secondary toll of the coronavirus pandemic.

INSKEEP: A study estimates more than 140,000 children in the United States have lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to COVID-19. This study, published today in the journal Pediatrics, also shows that most of the children are racial and ethnic minorities.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee joins us this morning to talk about this. Hi, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Oh, this is tough - 140,000 children losing the people who are closest to them in their lives. I mean, it's difficult to absorb. What more can you tell us about this data?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So that number, Rachel, was only until the end of June. We're now in October. So I spoke with author Susan Hillis. She's an epidemiologist at the CDC. And she estimates that now we're talking about 175,000 kids orphaned by the pandemic. And to be clear, the study defines orphan as losing either one or two parents.

SUSAN HILLIS: This means that for every four COVID-19 deaths, one child was left behind without a mother, father and/or grandparent who provided for that child's home, needs and nurture.

CHATTERJEE: And the longer the pandemic continues, the more kids will be affected.

MARTIN: So we know COVID-19 has hit communities of color especially hard, and we're seeing that here, too, right?

CHATTERJEE: So this has affected more kids in these communities. And here's the exact breakdown from Hillis

HILLIS: Sixty-five percent of all children experiencing COVID-associated orphanhood or death of their primary caregiver are of racial and ethnic minority. That is such an extreme disparity.

CHATTERJEE: And if you look closer at individual groups, American Indian and Alaska Native kids were 4.5 times more likely to have lost a primary caregiver compared to white kids, Black kids were 2.4 times more likely and Hispanic kids almost twice as likely.

MARTIN: It feels insufficient to ask what kind of effect this is going to have on children, what kind of trauma. I mean, losing a parent is life-changing, to say the least.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So we know that losing a parent can put kids at risk of economic, food and housing insecurity, especially when we're talking about communities of color, which are already disadvantaged. And I've been speaking with mental health care providers, who are seeing some of the emotional impacts. Dr. Warren Ng is a child psychiatrist at Columbia University, and he primarily works with kids in communities of color. And he says even grieving has been difficult for these children. Many didn't even get to see their parent in the hospital or say goodbye.

WARREN NG: They weren't able to go to a funeral. There wasn't really the same set of, I think, rituals and structures that are intended to help support people through a difficult process.

CHATTERJEE: So that's made it so much hard for these kids to sort of deal with this trauma. And we know that losing a parent also puts them at a higher risk of abuse and sexual violence and also mental health problems like depression, anxiety and suicide.

MARTIN: Right. So what are agencies that focus on children and children's mental health - what are they thinking in terms of how to help these kids?

CHATTERJEE: So the authors are calling for immediate action, and one of the things they say is we know that loving and supportive families protect kids from the impact of trauma, so making sure that these children can stay safe within immediate or extended families. Families have that support. And kids with no extended family - making sure they can find foster homes or be adopted quickly. But the problem is, Rachel, there's no systematic way of finding these kids and getting them the care they need.

MARTIN: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, thank you so much.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.