Amid widespread clinic closures, feds loosens reins on abortion pill

The FDA has lifted regulations on an abortion pill, overriding laws in several states and adding a fresh layer to the national abortion debate.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President and CEO of Whole Women's Health Amy Hagstrom Miller (l.), Center for Reproductive Rights senior counsel Stephanie Toti (c.) and President and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights Nancy Northup (r.) address reporters on the steps of the US Supreme Court after the court took up a major abortion case March 2.

Federal regulators relaxed guidelines for the use of a prescription pill designed to induce abortion Wednesday, a change that coincides with what advocates for and against legal abortion describe as a definitive moment in the debate.

The Food and Drug Administration overrode several state laws to provide women with another avenue to receive abortions, as abortion clinics have been closing around the country and the Supreme Court is hearing a case that will determine the constitutionality of key anti-abortion legislation by states.

The FDA ruling offers federal approval to a new label for the abortion drug Mifeprex, which terminates a pregnancy when taken along with misoprostol. The new label from Danco Laboratories allows women to take the drug up to 70 days into a pregnancy and take the second drug at home rather than at a clinic. Laws in Ohio, North Dakota, and Texas required doctors to prescribe the drug using the old 2000 label, meaning women could take the drug for 49 days after their last period. Similar laws are currently facing legal challenge in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Clinics in the affected states will implement the change within days, although pro-choice advocates say they want to begin at once.

"Combined with other restrictions in our state, medication abortion has required four in-person clinic visits, making this method too costly and cumbersome for most people," Chris France, executive director of Preterm, the largest abortion provider in Ohio, told the Associated Press. "Now, our providers will no longer be forced to practice medicine mandated by politicians whose goal is to shut us down."

The label change helps abortion providers but increases the dangerous possibilities of abortion via medication, which has killed 14 women, says Randall O'Bannon, research director for National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group.

"It looks like this benefits the abortion industry and increases their potential customer base and revenues, but it's not clear that anything here makes it safer for women in the long run, and certainly nothing about a chemical abortion makes it any safer for the unborn child," Mr. O'Bannon told the AP.

The overwhelming majority of abortions occur at standalone clinics, and 162 of those have closed or stopped performing abortions since 2011, while only 21 new clinics have opened during that time. The decline in abortion clinics occurs in states with and without significant abortion restrictions. Many closures result from simple economics or the declining demand for abortions, as Monitor's Henry Gass reported last month: 

Both supporters and critics of abortion attribute the decline to a range of factors, from high operating costs and reduced demand, to the rise of strict state regulations. And both sides say the abortion debate in America is reaching a seminal moment.... The closures have been felt in all corners of the country. While many of the clinics have shuttered in states that have adopted new regulations on abortion clinics, a broader array of pressures are taking their toll on clinics in states that are friendlier to them.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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