US court keeps abortion drug available — for now

New order limits access to women in first 7 weeks of pregnancy; it requires in-person visits to obtain pill; and it blocks medication from being sent by mail


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Mifepristone (Mifeprex) is displayed at the Women's Reproductive Clinic, which provides legal medication abortion services, in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. — AFP
Mifepristone (Mifeprex) is displayed at the Women's Reproductive Clinic, which provides legal medication abortion services, in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. — AFP

Published: Thu 13 Apr 2023, 6:37 PM

A US appeals court has blocked moves to ban a widely-used abortion pill -- but imposed tough restrictions on access, in the latest round of an intensifying battle over reproductive rights.

The ruling issued late Wednesday preserves access for now to mifepristone -- used for more than half of all abortions in the United States -- but a question mark remains over its long-term availability in a case likely to go all the way to Supreme Court.

The new order limits access to women in the first seven weeks of pregnancy, down from 10; it requires in-person visits to obtain the pill -- a requirement lifted in recent years; and it blocks the medication from being sent by mail.

Wednesday's 2-1 ruling by a federal appeals court in New Orleans, Louisiana, came after a Texas judge overturned the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) two-decades old approval of the drug last Friday.

The appellate court said its ruling would hold until the case was heard in full -- likely by the Supreme Court.

The latest standoff over women's reproductive freedom in America comes almost a year after the conservative-dominated Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that had enshrined the constitutional right to abortion for half a century.

US President Joe Biden has branded the Texas ruling as "out of bounds," and his spokeswoman, Karine Jean-Pierre, said Thursday the administration would continue fighting it in court.

"We believe that the law is on our side, and we will prevail," she told reporters during the president's visit to Dublin, Ireland.

"I can reassure the American people that that is our commitment to women ... to make sure that women are able to make decisions for themselves about their own body," she added.

Democrats and activists warn the Texas ruling -- issued by a judge appointed by former Republican president Donald Trump -- moves the nation one step closer to a nationwide abortion ban sought by many conservatives.

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk's ruling came after a coalition of anti-abortion groups sued to freeze the national distribution of mifepristone.

The Texas judge, in his decision, adopted language used by abortion opponents, referring to abortion providers as "abortionists" and saying the drug was used to "kill the unborn human."

Kacsmaryk said the two-drug regimen that includes mifepristone had resulted in "thousands of adverse events suffered by women and girls," including intense bleeding and psychological trauma.

But the FDA, researchers and the drugmaker say decades of experience have proven the medication to be safe and effective when used as indicated.

Polls repeatedly show a clear majority of Americans support continued access to safe abortion, even as conservative groups push to limit access the procedure -- or ban it outright.

The two New Orleans judges who voted to tighten restrictions on access, Kurt Engelhardt and Andrew Oldham, were also both appointed by Trump.

The third, Catharina Haynes, is an appointee of former president George W. Bush.

Shortly after the initial Texas decision, a judge in Washington state ruled in a separate case that access to mifepristone must be preserved. The dueling opinions, along with the appeals, mean the issue is almost certain to end up before the Supreme Court.

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