Access to Abortion Pills Is Safe — At Least For Now

The Supreme Court declined to override the health agency on mifepristone, but more anti-reproductive rights lawsuits are waiting in the wings.

First Published13 Jun 2024, 11:04 PM IST
Access to Abortion Pills Is Safe — At Least For Now
Access to Abortion Pills Is Safe — At Least For Now

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Supreme Court on Thursday preserved women’s access to a vital form of health care, maintaining full access to the medication abortion pill mifepristone.

Although women in the US still face unconscionable barriers to accessing reproductive health care — which compromise our bodily autonomy and put our lives on the line — it’s still worth celebrating the rare times when reason reigns.

Mifepristone, taken in combination with misoprostol, is considered by the Food and Drug Administration to be effective within the first 10 weeks of a pregnancy — a period when the majority of abortions are completed. The pills have become an increasingly essential tool in abortion care, accounting for some 63% of abortions in the US in 2023, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute.

But a group of anti-abortion doctors argued that the FDA had overlooked safety issues associated with mifepristone, using highly flawed data and retracted studies to support its case. Although the group originally sought to remove the drug from the market entirely — overturning the agency’s 2000 decision to approve it — the court had pared back the case to consider only more recent FDA regulatory changes to how the drug is dispensed. (As is typical with all drugs, the agency over time had loosened restrictions on how the drug can be prescribed as data emerged to show its safety.)

The case jeopardized these revisions, which are vital for wider access to medication abortion, such as the ability to get a prescription through telehealth and receive the pills through the mail. Telehealth has expanded abortion access in the US. Even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, surveys of telehealth patients made clear the service opened the door to a timely abortion — and for some people, it was the only way an abortion would have been possible.

Also on the line: Whether only doctors can prescribe the two-drug regimen. The FDA said in 2016 that nurse practitioners and physician assistants could also dispense it safely.

Notably, if the court had decided to restrict mifepristone access, the ruling would have applied nationwide — not only to women living in the 17 states with complete or near-total bans on abortion.

Reams of data and years of real-world experience affirm the safety of mifepristone. And while the case wound its way through the courts, researchers added to the evidence supporting its safety — whether prescribed remotely or by a nurse or PA.

For example, a recent study published in Nature Medicine found no difference in the safety of medication abortion dispensed in person and that dispensed through telehealth. Some 98% of people who had pills mailed to their homes after a telehealth visit did not experience a side effect and did not need a follow-up. 

But it’s important to remember that the court dismissed the case on reasonably technical grounds — they decided that the plaintiffs in the case had not actually been harmed by the FDA’s mifepristone regulations and thus lacked standing to sue. You can bet that conservative groups are already looking for new plaintiffs and inventing new, similarly specious legal arguments to restrict access to mifepristone.

In fact, some of those cases are already underway. The Supreme Court had rejected a request by the states of Idaho, Kansas and Missouri — all of which contended residents had received the pills through the mail illegally — to join the abortion doctors’ case. But those other cases could still move forward on their own.

In addition to expecting more attacks on medication abortion, we should also expect attacks on women’s health care more broadly. Earlier this week, the Southern Baptist Convention, viewed as a pacesetter for broader evangelical sentiment, voted against the use of in vitro fertilization. The group views fertilized embryos as humans who will be killed if unused by a couple. And in February, the Alabama Supreme Court held that such embryos were children, temporarily stopping IVF treatment in the state.

As recent congressional testimony from anti-abortion activists makes clear, access to other reproductive technologies, including emergency contraception and intra-uterine devices, could also be targeted. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has yet to rule on a case brought by the Idaho that could make it harder for women to receive care for dangerous pregnancy complications.  

But for today, it’s worth celebrating — for now at least — continued access to an essential form of health care for women across the US.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, health care and the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, she was executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.

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First Published:13 Jun 2024, 11:04 PM IST
HomeNewsAccess to Abortion Pills Is Safe — At Least For Now

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