US Supreme Court agrees to hear case on medication abortion

Hands with mifepristone

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review a decision by a federal appeals court that could significantly reduce access to mifepristone, a drug used in medication abortions, according to a list of orders released on Dec. 13.

In April, Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a decision that suspended the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 23-year-old approval of mifepristone along with subsequent rules governing the use of the medication. The U.S. Department of Justice appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

A few days later, the appeals court issued a ruling that upheld Kacsmaryk’s decision regarding the rules and reinstating earlier restrictions on the drug’s use, such as the ability to send the drug through the mail, but did not suspend the FDA’s approval of the drug. The next day, the Justice Department announced it would seek emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court to protect access to mifepristone. The Supreme Court then issued a temporary stay of part of the appeals court’s decision, leaving the abortion medication on the market but with its pre-2016 restrictions in place, limiting who can prescribe the medication and what pharmacies can dispense it.

Mifepristone has been determined to be safe in numerous scientific studies.

“We have grave concerns about pending Supreme Court action on access to mifepristone, one of the most common drugs prescribed for medication abortion,” said Signe Espinoza, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates executive director. 

Medication abortions account for over half of all abortions in the United States. Mifepristone is the first-step oral medication used to end a pregnancy in combination with a second drug, misoprostol.

“People should have access to the healthcare they need when they need it, and that includes access to medication abortion that’s been used safely for decades,” Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers tweeted on Dec. 13. 

This is the first abortion-related case the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up since it overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022. 

“Mifepristone is a well-studied, effective medication used for a variety of reasons, including medication abortion, management of miscarriage, and uterine fibroids,” Dr. Kristin Lyerly, a Green Bay, Wisconsin-based obstetrician and gynecologist, said in an email to the American Independent. “Safer than Tylenol or Viagra, our ability as healthcare providers to offer this effective medication has been continually hampered by political and judicial interference, preventing our patients from getting the most effective, cost-efficient treatments for their deeply personal medical conditions. 

In September, the Justice Department and GenBioPro, the manufacturer of a generic form of mifepristone, asked the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and ensure access to the drug. 

As the Department of Justice continues defending the FDA’s actions before the Supreme Court, President Biden and Vice President Harris remain firmly committed to defending women’s ability to access reproductive care. We continue to urge Congress to pass a law restoring the protections of Roe v. Wade—the only way to ensure the right to choose for women in every state,” the White House said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Some abortion rights activists say they hope the Supreme Court might reverse the decision by the appeals court. 

“Mifepristone remains safe and effective. We are pleased the Supreme Court has taken this case and should reverse the politically motivated decision by the 5th Circuit,” Tanya Atkinson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, told the American Independent via email.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to take up this case means access to mifepristone remains protected — for now,” Ashlea Phenicie, chief advocacy officer of Planned Parenthood of Michigan and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan, told the American Independent in a statement. “The Court should reject this politically motivated effort to interfere with the FDA’s approval process, which would put back in place medically unnecessary requirements for providing abortion. This is yet another effort by people opposed to safe, legal abortion to interfere with the health care provider and patient relationship, and could make it more difficult for patients to get the medical care they need and deserve.”

The issue of abortion will be top-of-mind as the country enters the 2024 election season.

“This case should never have made it this far. The whims of extremist judges should not override two decades of settled science and safe use,” Mini Timmaraju, Reproductive Freedom for All president and CEO, said in a statement. The Court’s conservative justices have already ended Roe v. Wade — and now they are endangering access to medication abortion for more than 64.5 million people — even in states where abortion is protected. This is a five-alarm fire, and we should all be on high alert. In order to preserve any last shred of its legitimacy, the Court must rule against anti-abortion extremists’ bogus case.”