The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld access to a commonly used abortion pill, ruling that it can continue to be available as court cases rage.
In another decision, it also struck down a lower court’s restriction on mifepristone, essentially maintaining the status quo.
The drug’s future is in doubt after a Texas judge sought to invalidate its long-standing approval.
The case could have profound implications for abortion.
It follows the Supreme Court – with a 6-3 Conservative majority – overturning Roe v Wade last June, ending abortion protections nationwide and giving states the power to ban the procedure.
With Friday’s decision, the mifepristone case now returns to the Fifth Circuit Lower Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case could return to the Supreme Court in the most important decision related to abortion since Roe was overturned.
Mifepristone is part of a dual-drug regimen that is currently responsible for more than half of the country’s abortions. It has been used by more than 5 million women in the United States to terminate pregnancies.
After four years of testing, it was first approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than 20 years ago.
The FDA also places mifepristone in 60 drug classes that are subject to additional restrictions and a periodic evaluation system.
Leading medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization, say the abortion pill is safe and effective.
But earlier this month, Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled to suspend the FDA’s approval of mifepristone.
Judge Kacsmaryk’s initial decision came after an anti-abortion group launched a case challenging the safety of mifepristone.
His April 7 decision came minutes before a Washington state judge ordered the FDA not to change the drug’s availability and to continue using mifepristone in 17 US states.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden appealed the Texas verdict, seeking a stay of the Texas court’s ruling.
A divided appeals court said mifepristone could continue to be used while the appeal was pending, but with certain limitations.
One of the restrictions imposed by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was to limit the delivery of pills by mail, effectively requiring an in-person visit. Those restrictions have now been temporarily lifted by the Supreme Court.
Two Conservative members of the Supreme Court, Justices Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito, publicly dissented from the decision, which was made in one paragraph and several months before a self-imposed deadline. hourly release.
Justice Thomas did not give reasons for his dissent, while Justice Alito wrote that the Supreme Court has faced criticism in the past for issuing emergency orders, which critics have dubbed a “shadow list.”
A full breakdown of the vote has not yet been released.
The decision drew an immediate response from anti-abortion advocates who have focused on the abortion pill since Roe’s downfall.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative advocacy group that filed the original lawsuit, said the FDA “must be held accountable for the damage it has done to the health of countless women and girls.”
“We look forward to the eventual outcome of this case holding FDA accountable,” it said.
Kristan Hawkins, president of anti-abortion group Students for Life, called the Supreme Court decision a “tragedy”.
Advocates of freedom of choice have “armed and weakened medical standards to advance the interests of the abortion industry,” she said.
The latest ruling was welcomed by medical experts and organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said: “Restricting the use of mifepristone, a drug that has been on the market for two decades, is a challenge even for a highly progressive and conservative Supreme Court. unacceptable.”
Restrictions on mifepristone would do “immeasurable” damage to the drug approval process in the United States, he said. “In a way, this is going to be open hunting season for all FDA drugs.”
Pro-choice politicians also welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, including Mr. Biden, who said he would continue to defend the FDA’s independence and fight “political attacks on women’s health.”
The fight isn’t over — hearings in the case are set to begin in mid-May at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
But for now, Friday’s ruling has had the immediate effect of reassuring health care providers that visits will continue, at least for now.
Kristyn Brandi, an ob-gyn and abortion provider in New Jersey, said she was relieved to learn of the verdict. Until then, she and other providers weren’t sure what they could offer patients who showed up at the clinic this weekend.
“Tomorrow at 7am, patients can get the care they need,” she said. “That’s what matters today.”
Additional reporting by Madeline Halpert