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US: Supreme Court maintains access to abortion pill

June 13, 2024

Anti-abortion groups had presented the bid to restrict access to mifepristone, which would have added more hurdles to abortion even in states where the practice is legal.

In this 2018 photo, mifepristone and misoprostol pills are provided at a Carafem clinic for medication abortions in Skokie, Illinois.
The mifepristone abortion pill is used in some two-thirds of US abortionsImage: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS/Abaca/picture alliance

The US Supreme Court preserved on Thursday access to the abortion pill, used in nearly two-thirds of abortions nationwide, thus handing President Joe Biden's administration a victory in their fight for abortion rights.

The bid to restrict access to mifepristone was pushed for by anti-abortion groups and some doctors.

The pill, often used alongside a second drug, misoprostol, blocks the hormone progesterone and primes the uterus to respond to contractions caused by the latter drug. Both drugs are used hand-in-hand to end pregnancies through 10 weeks of gestation. 

Health care providers say that restrictions on mifepristone would force them to solely rely on misoprostol, arguing that this could make the non-invasive procedure to end pregnancies early less effective.

What did the court say?

Thursday's verdict at the Supreme Court was a unanimous 9-0 ruling. The judges found that the plaintiffs should have taken their concerns about the drug and its expanded use in recent years to regulators directly rather than to the courts.

"We recognize that many citizens, including the plaintiff doctors here, have sincere concerns about and objections to others using mifepristone and obtaining abortions," said Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

"But citizens and doctors do not have standing to sue simply because others are allowed to engage in certain activities," Kavanaugh said. "The plaintiffs lack standing to challenge FDA's actions."

Kavanaugh argued that the federal courts were "the wrong forum for addressing the plaintiffs' concerns about FDA's actions," suggesting they instead present their objections through regulatory procedures or through the "political and electoral processes."

Why the plaintiffs wanted to restrict mifepristone access

The plaintiffs took jabs at regulatory actions by the FDA in 2016 and 2021, which eased the restrictions on the use of mifepristone. They accused the FDA of acting contrary to its mandate to ensure medications are safe.

US Supreme Court unlikely to limit access to abortion pill

They also argued that easing restrictions around mifepristone's availability caused anti-abortion doctors to suffer by being forced to violate their conscience and treat patients who developed complications after taking the drug.

The court on Thursday did not rule on the plaintiffs' claim regarding the safety of the FDA decisions. Rather, the judges said they failed to provide evidence to support their claims regarding the doctors' suffering.

The FDA has said that mifepristone has proven "extremely safe" after decades of use by millions of women nationwide and abroad. Studies have shown that "serious adverse events are exceedingly rare," the FDA added.

One of many abortion-related cases and debates in US since Roe-v-Wade overturned

The case effectively threatened to restrict abortion access nationwide. This would have included states that have not moved to stop the procedure since the nationwide legal guarantee to abortion access known as Roe-v-Wade was overturned in 2022.

A minority of more conservative states in the US have sought or are seeking to impose more stern restrictions, with three banning the procedure outright after six weeks of pregnancy, since that law was overturned.

Arizona court rules in favor of 19th century abortion law

And in another Supreme Court case, the judges will be asked to decide if state bans on abortion are superseded by a federal law on emergency treatment in cases of clear and imminent health risks for a pregnant patient. 

The issue could even become a hot button in November's presidential election. The Biden administration has made it clear it wants to preserve abortion rights. Donald Trump's position on the issue has fluctuated several times over the years but he's generally seen as less averse to abortions than many Republicans.

rmt/msh (AP, Reuters)