Abortion pill still under threat in US despite ruling

Brendan Pierson |

The legal fight over access to an abortion drug may not be over despite the latest court ruling.
The legal fight over access to an abortion drug may not be over despite the latest court ruling.

A US Supreme Court ruling to keep the abortion drug mifepristone on the market with no new restrictions ends one chapter of the legal fight over the drug, but efforts by abortion opponents to restrict its use may not be over.

In rejecting a lawsuit by anti-abortion medical groups and doctors, the Supreme Court did not rule on their claim that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acted improperly when it eased restrictions on mifepristone.

Instead, the court found the plaintiffs had not shown they suffered the kind of harm that would allow them to bring a lawsuit.

The plaintiffs had argued anti-abortion doctors were harmed by the pill’s availability because they might be forced to violate their conscience by treating patients who developed complications after taking it. 

A file photo of mifepristone packages
Anti-abortion medical groups and doctors made a legal bid to restrict access to mifepristone. (AP PHOTO)

But the Supreme Court decided they had not offered any evidence that any doctor had actually faced that situation or was likely to in the future.

Normally, that would be the end of the case. Last November, however, US District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Texas, where the lawsuit was originally filed, allowed three Republican-led states that ban abortion to join the case as plaintiffs.

Those states – Idaho, Missouri and Kansas – had asked to join the Supreme Court appeal, but the justices refused, leaving their claims pending in Kacsmaryk’s lower court.

Now, they can try to go forward on their own. Abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights, as well as abortion opponents, including Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America, said the fight is not over and cited the pending claims by the states.

Mifepristone is the first part of a two-drug regimen used for medication abortion, which is approved by the FDA to terminate pregnancy in the first 10 weeks. 

Medication abortion accounted for more than 60 per cent of US abortions last year.

The drug has drawn increasing attention as Republican-led states have banned or restricted abortion in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling reversing Roe v Wade, its longstanding precedent that had guaranteed abortion rights nationwide.

A file photo of Matthew Kacsmaryk
Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, an ex-conservative Christian activist, is sympathetic to abortion foes. (AP PHOTO)

The dwindling availability of abortion services in much of the US has led some women to obtain abortion pills in defiance of laws in their states. 

Several Democratic-led states have passed expansive shield laws intended to allow doctors to prescribe and mail the drug across state lines.

Idaho, Missouri and Kansas claim that their residents had obtained mifepristone elsewhere or received it illegally in the mail, leading public hospitals to incur costs dealing with complications of medication abortions.

Kacsmaryk, a former conservative Christian activist, has proven broadly sympathetic to abortion foes, likely the reason they chose to sue in his court. 

In his original ruling in the case, the judge went further than restoring old restrictions on mifepristone, instead suspending its approval, which the FDA had issued in 2000, altogether.

On appeal, a court found the lawsuit was too late to challenge that decades-old approval, and the Supreme Court declined to review that finding, meaning the original approval is likely safe. 

But if Kacsmaryk lets the states go forward, he would be free to impose the later restrictions once again.

That would trigger another round of appeals, dragging out the uncertainty and confusion around the pill for months or years.