John Oliver got straight to the point on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight: the 6-3 supreme court decision to overturn Roe v Wade was “absolutely horrifying”.
“It is hard to stomach some of the gleeful responses right now,” he said, pointing to the Texas attorney general’s decision to declare 24 June an annual holiday. “You don’t get a holiday to celebrate the loss of rights for millions of people when you already have one, and it’s called Columbus Day,” Oliver seethed.
Mike Pence’s statement claiming “today, life won” was “pretty tough to take, given that for some, especially disabled people and other vulnerable groups, forced pregnancy could be a death sentence”, Oliver said.
The ruling, which will lead to total abortion bans in about half of US states, is particularly insulting and dangerous given that “even when planned, pregnancy is, best-case scenario, a major medical event that rips open your butt, rearranges your organs and then puts them back in wrong, and anyone who genuinely advocates adoption as a reasonable alternative has clearly never heard the word prolapse.
“In some ways, we’re in uncharted territory,” he explained, noting that states are poised to surveil people who are seeking abortion or thought to have had one, opening up search histories, browsing histories, text messages, location data and information from period-tracking apps to prosecutors.
“What the supreme court has just done is utterly devastating,” Oliver said. “The message that the supreme court sends is pretty clear: we don’t care if pregnancy kills you, we don’t care if you don’t want to be pregnant, we don’t care about you at all.”
Oliver also took aim at “dispiriting” Democratic leadership who “utterly failed to meet the moment” last week – “a moment, by the way, that they had nearly two months to plan for”. Nancy Pelosi read a poem, and many sent out fundraising requests – “really fulfilling that old Democratic adage: when they go low, we ask you for $15”, Oliver quipped.
“It has been depressing to see so many of them treat the end of Roe v Wade with the solemnity of a funeral instead of the urgency of a fucking cardiac arrest,” he said. “And they stand in stark contrast to the groups on the ground who have been displaying that urgency for years now.”
Oliver’s main segment pivoted to another urgent US crisis: record droughts in the American south-west, which is having its driest 22-year period since AD800, the farthest back that data goes.
The fight over water in the west, which has already drained Lake Powell and Lake Mead to shockingly low levels, has its roots in the Colorado River Compact. The 1922 agreement between seven states divided up the river’s water, “essentially letting people lay claim to it through a complex system of ‘calling dibs’”, Oliver explained. “And look, I’ve got no problem with dibs in principle – it’s a great way to figure out who gets the last slice of pizza or the pink Starbursts or the cutest baby at the hospital.”
But dibs “is a weird way to divide up something as important as water”, said Oliver, noting the compact’s reliance on the so-called “law of the river”, which “sounds less like a water management agreement and more like an animated buddy cop movie starring a trout and a bear voiced by two actors who are both wildly antisemitic”.
The compact also excluded critical parties – namely, Mexico and Indigenous tribes – and from the start allocated more water than actually existed. A large study from the federal government last decade forced modelers to add “magic water” – extra water that existed only in the computer model – to the data. “Which is just absurd,” said Oliver, “and not only because magic water sounds like a euphemism for urine used only by Björk”.
“I do get why states might want to pretend there’s more water than there is,” Oliver said, because “nobody wants to be the one having to deliver bad news. But the immovable fact is: cities in the desert can’t grow without limits and hard sacrifices will have to be made.
“For decades now, we’ve been using more water than the Colorado River has, even as we have rapidly depleted critical groundwater supplies,” he summarized. Municipalities across the south-west have responded very differently to the crisis – Las Vegas, for example, managed to decrease its use of Colorado River water by 26% despite a population growth of 34% between 2002 and 2013. “So Vegas can actually be something of a model for other places, when it comes to water conservation and literally nothing else,” said Oliver.
And then there’s Utah, the largest consumer of water, whose governor, Spencer Cox, issued a PSA last year asking “Utahns of all faiths to join me in a weekend of prayer … asking God or whatever higher power you believe in for more rain”.
“Wow, you know Utah is desperate when they ask all faiths to join in prayer,” Oliver laughed.
More seriously, “we desperately need to prepare for a much drier future in the American west,” Oliver concluded. And for those who still thought prayer was the answer, Oliver had a special message from God, played by Succession’s Brian Cox: “You can’t pray your way out of a drought … you got yourself in this fucking mess, get yourself the fuck out of it.”