The U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion rights sets the stage for conservative states to drastically limit access to a pill used to end early pregnancies.
The ruling is likely to make abortion illegal in half the country and puts the authority to regulate the procedure back in the hands of state governments. Legal scholars say the move could spur states to go after mifepristone, a medication that’s used for the majority of U.S. abortions.
“Abortion pills are the new battleground. In many states they will be illegal,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “There will be a race to the bottom for who can be the most restrictive state.”
The Biden administration is already shoring up efforts to counter the Supreme Court ruling’s impact on abortion drugs.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra has said he’s directing the agency to “do any and everything we can” to ensure “the right to safe and legal abortion” through medication. Attorney General Merrick Garland also joined the fray, asserting that states can’t ban mifepristone based on disagreement with the Food and Drug Administration’s “expert judgment about its safety and efficacy.”
That, however, doesn’t mean that states won’t try to find other means to block access to the drugs.
“‘If what we think will happen actually happens, the 26 states that ban abortion will also ban medication abortion,” said Rachel Rebouché, a Temple University professor specializing in reproductive health law. “To get a medication abortion legally, you will need to be in a state that permits telehealth for abortion or be in a state where a provider can hand you the abortion pill.”
Friday’s decision to uphold a Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy doesn’t ban abortion pills outright. But it does set the stage for a contentious battle between state rights and FDA regulatory authority.
“This is an unsettled area of law—what the preemption power of the FDA is as it comes to drug regulations that contradicts state policy—because these bans won’t target medication, they will just include medication,” Rebouché said.
Whether a drug goes on the market is a decision that ultimately rests with the FDA.