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Biden administration urges Supreme Court to hear case on major abortion pill

Boxes of the drug mifepristone sit on a shelf at the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on March 16, 2022.
Allen G. Breed
Boxes of the drug mifepristone sit on a shelf at the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on March 16, 2022.

The Biden administration urged the Supreme Court on Friday to reconsider a lower-court ruling that would dramatically limit access to the key abortion pill, mifepristone.

In its petition obtained by NPR, the Justice Department argued that the abortion pill is many women's "best method" to terminate early pregnancies.

"The loss of access to mifepristone would be damaging for women and healthcare providers around the Nation," the Justice Department wrote.

It comes hours after the manufacturer of mifepristone, Danco Laboratories, filed a similar petition asking the court to reverse that decision.

Last month, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruledthat mifepristone should not be prescribed past seven weeks of pregnancy or via telemedicine. For the time being, the pill has remained on the market in states where abortion is legal, as well as via telemedicine or mail while the Supreme Court decides whether to hear the case.

If the court agrees to take up the case in the fall, mifepristone will likely remain available under those conditions until the court reaches a decision — probably sometime in 2024, in the midst of a presidential election cycle.

But if the court allows the 5th Circuit's decision to stand, access to the abortion pill could be dramatically reduced nationwide. Such a decision also would represent an unprecedented weakening of the Food and Drug Administration's authority to approve medications.

"To the government's knowledge, the decisions below mark the first time any court has restricted access to an FDA-approved drug based on disagreement with FDA's expert judgment to assure that drug's safe use—much less done so after those conditions had been in effect for years," the Justice Department wrote.

Mifepristone, which is the first of a two-pill regimen, was approved in 2000 by the FDA. Today, it accounts for more than half of all abortions performed in the U.S. It also commonly used to treat miscarriages.

Last year, a coalition of anti-abortion rights groups filed a lawsuit in Texas arguing the FDA improperly approved the abortion pill. In May, a three-judge panel, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump and one who was appointed by former President George W. Bush, heard arguments in the case.

Abortion-rights opponents argue that the federal agency ignored safety risks with the abortion pill and later loosened regulations, like reducing the number of doctor's appointments needed to receive a prescription.

On Friday, the Justice Department argued that those claims were speculative and false, adding that the federal government did not find evidence to suggest that expanding access to mifepristone increased the number of women who suffered from complications after taking the abortion pill.

The dispute over mifepristone would be the first major abortion-related case decided by the Supreme Court since it overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.