For now, the drug that the FDA approved in 2000 remains at least immediately available in wake of the separate rulings that were issued just minutes apart by federal judges.
AUSTIN — Access to the most commonly used method of abortion in the U.S. plunged into uncertainty Friday following conflicting court rulings over the legality of the abortion medication mifepristone that has been widely available for more than 20 years.
For now, the drug the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2000 appeared to remain at least immediately available in the wake of two separate rulings that were issued in quick succession by federal judges in Texas and Washington.U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee in Amarillo, ordered a hold on federal approval of mifepristone in a decision that overruled decades of scientific approval. But that decision came at nearly the same time that U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice, an Obama appointee, essentially ordered the opposite and directed U.S. authorities not to make any changes that would restrict access to the drug in at least 17 states where Democrats sued in an effort to protect availability.
The extraordinary timing of the competing orders revealed the high stakes surrounding the drug nearly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade and curtailed access to abortion across the country. President Joe Biden said his administration would fight the Texas ruling.
The whiplash of the conflicting decisions is likely to put the issue on an accelerated path to the Supreme Court.
“FDA is under one order that says you can do nothing and another that says in seven days I’m going to require you to vacate the approval of mifepristone,” said Glenn Cohen of Harvard Law School.
Abortion providers slammed the Texas ruling, including Whole Woman’s Health, which operates six clinics in five states and said it would continue to dispense mifepristone in person and by mail over the next week as they review the rulings.The abortion drug has been widely used in the U.S. since securing FDA approval and there is essentially no precedent for a lone judge overruling the medical decisions of the Food and Drug Administration. Mifepristone is one of two drugs used for medication abortion in the United States, along with misoprostol, which is also used to treat other medical conditions.
Kacsmaryk signed an injunction directing the FDA to stay mifepristone’s approval while a lawsuit challenging the safety and approval of the drug continues. His 67-page order gave the government seven days to appeal.
“The Court in this case has substituted its judgment for FDA, the expert agency that approves drugs,” Biden said. “If this ruling were to stand, then there will be virtually no prescription, approved by the FDA, that would be safe from these kinds of political, ideological attacks.”
Clinics and doctors that prescribe the two-drug combination have said that if mifepristone were pulled from the market, they would switch to using only the second drug, misoprostol. That single-drug approach has a slightly lower rate of effectiveness in ending pregnancies, but it is widely used in countries where mifepristone is illegal or unavailable.
The lawsuit in the Texas case was filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which was also involved in the Mississippi case that led to Roe vs. Wade being overturned. At the core of the lawsuit is the allegation that the FDA’s initial approval of mifepristone was flawed because it did not adequately review its safety risks.
Courts have long deferred to the FDA on issues of drug safety and effectiveness. But the agency’s authority faces new challenges in a post-Roe legal environment in which abortions are banned or unavailable in 14 states, while 16 states have laws specifically targeting abortion medications.
Since the Texas lawsuit was filed in November, legal experts have warned of questionable arguments and factual inaccuracies in the Christian group’s filing. Kacsmaryk essentially agreed with the plaintiffs on all of their major points, including that the FDA didn’t adequately review mifepristone’s safety.
“The Court does not second-guess FDA’s decision-making lightly.” Kacsmaryk wrote. “But here, FDA acquiesced on its legitimate safety concerns — in violation of its statutory duty — based on plainly unsound reasoning and studies that did not support its conclusions.”