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US Supreme Court unanimously rejects bid to restrict access to widely-used abortion poll

The pro-life plaintiffs sought a restriction on the abortion pill mifepristone, which has been banned from use in 14 states since the overturning of the 1973 Roe v Wade precedent. The Supreme Court ruling is a brief victory for Joe Biden's administration, but future lawsuits are likely to follow.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Published on: June 14, 2024 14:46 IST
Mifepristone, the abortion pill used widely in the US.
Image Source : REUTERS Mifepristone, the abortion pill used widely in the US.

Washington: The US Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, rejected a bid on Thursday (local time) by anti-abortion groups and doctors to restrict access to the widely-used abortion pill mifepristone, handing a victory to President Joe Biden's administration and abortion activists in their efforts to preserve broad access to the drug, two years after its controversial decision to end the recognition of a constitutional right to abortion.

The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 to overturn a lower court's decision to roll back US Food and Drug Administration steps in 2016 and 2021 that eased how the drug, called mifepristone, is prescribed and distributed. The decision was authored by conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The nine justices ruled that abortion opponents lacked the legal right to sue over the FDA's approval of the medication. The case had threatened to restrict access to mifepristone across the country, including in states where the drug was legal.

The Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, in 2022 overturned its 1973 Roe vs Wade precedent that had legalised abortion nationwide, prompting 14 states to enact measures banning or sharply restricting the procedure. The mifepristone case began five months after the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 right to abortion.

What is Milepristone?

Mifepristone is prescribed to end pregnancies by dilating the cervix and blocking the hormone progesterone, which is needed to sustain a pregnancy. It is usually taken with a second drug, misprostol, that causes the uterus to cramp and contract. The two-drug regimen is used to end a pregnancy through 10 weeks.

The drug remains fully approved and available under the current FDA framework. The FDA has also expanded availability to large pharmacy chains and allowed prescribing by nurses and other health professionals. However, access to the pills is restricted across large swaths of the country because of state laws that ban abortion (including medication abortion) outright or impose separate restrictions on the drug’s use.

What is the case about?

The plaintiffs, led by a pro-life group called the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, wanted to restrict the use of mifepristone. A ruling in favour of the plaintiffs could have threatened the regulatory authority of the FDA over drug safety. The plaintiffs targeted FDA regulatory actions in 2016 and 2021, including allowing for medication abortions at up to 10 weeks of pregnancy instead of seven, and for mail delivery of the drug without a woman first seeing a clinician in-person. 

Kavanaugh wrote that even though the plaintiffs do not prescribe or use mifepristone, they wanted the FDA to make it harder for other doctors to prescribe it and women to receive it. "Under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff's desire to make a drug less available for others does not establish standing to sue," he wrote.

Kavanaugh also rejected the argument made by the plaintiffs that the FDA's actions will force them to provide abortions, violating their consciences, because federal law already protects them. This came as Biden and other Democrats have sought to make abortion rights a central theme against Republicans in the election.

Reactions to the Supreme Court verdict

While praising the decision, President Joe Biden signaled Democrats will continue to campaign heavily on abortion ahead of the November elections. “It does not change the fact that the right for a woman to get the treatment she needs is imperiled if not impossible in many states,” Biden said in a statement.

"Attacks on medication abortion are part of Republican elected officials’ extreme and dangerous agenda to ban abortion nationwide. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Republican elected officials have imposed extreme abortion bans in 21 states, some of which include zero exceptions for rape or incest ... The stakes could not be higher for women across America," he added.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America, expressed disappointment with the ruling, but trained her fire on Democrats. “Joe Biden and the Democrats are hell-bent on forcing abortion on demand any time for any reason, including DIY mail-order abortions, on every state in the country,” Dannenfelser said.

Abortion is banned at all stages of pregnancy in 14 states, and after about six weeks of pregnancy in three others, often before women realise they're pregnant. The Supreme Court decision is unlikely to stop the push to restrict abortion pills, said the lawyer who represented anti-abortion doctors and their organisations. Erin Hawley said the ruling was based on a "legal technicality" and not the merits of the legal arguments.

Former US President Donald Trump, the Republican candidate challenging Biden, pledged in April to disclose how his administration would regulate the abortion drugs if he is elected, but has yet to do so. His campaign did not address the issue directly when responding to Thursday's court's decision.

(with inputs from agencies)

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