FDA lifts in-person restrictions on abortion pill

<p>This Sept. 22, 2010, file photo shows bottles of abortion pills at a clinic in Des Moines, Iowa.</p>

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

This Sept. 22, 2010, file photo shows bottles of abortion pills at a clinic in Des Moines, Iowa.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday permanently loosened some restrictions on abortion pills, including a long-standing requirement that the medication be picked up in person.

Officials said a scientific review supported broadening access and allowing more pharmacies — including mail-order services — to distribute the medication.

But prescribing will still be limited to doctors who complete special certification. Additionally, the agency said dispensing pharmacies will have to be registered with the FDA.

The decision is the latest shift in the polarized legal battle over medication abortion, which has only intensified amid the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is certain to spur legal challenges and more restrictions in Republican-led states.

Earlier this year the FDA stopped enforcing the in-person dispending requirement because of the pandemic. Under Thursday’s decision, the agency will permanently drop the rule, which has long been opposed by medical societies, including the American Medical Association, that say the restrictions offer no clear benefit to patients.

The FDA’s latest scientific review stems from a 2017 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the agency’s restrictions block or delay medical care, especially for people in low-income and rural communities.

Physicians who prescribe the drug, mifepristone, will have to certify that they can provide emergency care to deal with its potential side effects, including excessive bleeding, FDA officials said Thursday.

The change still means many more doctors will be able to prescribe the drug and most Americans will be able to fill orders at thousands of pharmacies, including via online and mail-order services.

The effect will vary by state. More than a dozen Republican-led states have passed measures that limit access to the pills, including outlawing delivery by mail.

The latest policy shift comes as advocates on both sides of the abortion debate wait to see whether the conservative Supreme Court will weaken or even overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that guarantees the right to abortion nationwide.

Roe’s demise would likely prompt at least 20 Republican-governed states to impose sweeping bans while perhaps 15 states governed by Democrats would reaffirm support for abortion access. More complicated would be politically divided states where fights over abortion laws could be ferocious.

Medication abortion has been available in the United States since 2000, when the FDA first approved mifepristone to terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks. Taken with a hormone blocker called misoprostol, it constitutes the so-called abortion pill.