Physicians, ACLU sue FDA over abortion pill limits

Risks of getting COVID-19 rise if women have to get abortion pills in person

FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn at his Senate confirmation hearing last year.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn at his Senate confirmation hearing last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 27, 2020 at 4:39pm

A group of medical providers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday, challenging federal requirements that limit how medication abortions are dispensed.

The medical group coalition, led by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, opposes an FDA restriction on mifepristone, a drug used to end a pregnancy or for miscarriage management. Medication abortions use a two-pill regimen to end a pregnancy.

Under federal regulations, a mifepristone pill must be administered in person at a health care office or hospital and cannot be picked up at a pharmacy like most other medications. The lawsuit seeks to allow patients to access the medication by mail during the current pandemic.

“At every other turn during this pandemic, the federal government is trying to make it easier for patients to get the medical care they need without unnecessary health care visits that jeopardize their safety,” said Julia Kaye, staff attorney at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

“But when it comes to patients who need to end an early pregnancy or treat a miscarriage, the administration is forcing them to travel to a hospital, clinic, or medical office just to pick up a pill they are already permitted to swallow later at home.”

The plaintiffs argue that requiring in-person pickups poses unnecessary risks for both the patient and the medical provider.

“During the current health care crisis, it also requires them to endanger themselves, their families and their providers with coronavirus exposure,” said Eva Chalas, president of ACOG, during a call with reporters Wednesday. “This case is about protecting women, their families, and the clinicians that care for them."

Groups like Students for Life of America have advocated in the past for limits on access to medication abortions. The group's president Kristan Hawkins has testified against expanding access in California, calling it "dangerous."

The ACLU also argues the restrictions place additional burdens on communities of color and low-income women, who are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Barbara Keber, president of the New York State Academy of Family Physicians, said in a statement there is “no medically justifiable reason to restrict use of mifepristone.”

NYSAFP, the Council of University Chairs of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective joined ACOG in the lawsuit.

The ACLU has another lawsuit, Chelius v. Azar, pending related to the restrictions on mifepristone. In that litigation, the ACLU is challenging the entirety of the restrictions, but this lawsuit specifically seeks emergency relief related to the medication only for the duration of the pandemic.

The FDA did not respond to a request for comment.

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