The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday moved to permanently lift a restriction barring patients from receiving abortion pills by mail.
The decision will allow mifepristone, an FDA-approved drug used in conjunction with a second pill called misoprostol, to be prescribed through telehealth consultations and mailed directly to patients, eliminating a requirement stipulating that the pills be picked up at a hospital, clinic or medical office.
A judge granted a request from medical groups to suspend the in-person dispensing requirement due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020 but the Supreme Court in January moved to restore the rule.
The Biden administration again waived enforcement of the in-person requirement in April amid challenges and then launched a scientific review to determine whether the restrictions should be permanently lifted, with a deadline for a decision set for Thursday.
Writing to a medical group that had sued over the rule, the FDA said it was dropping the in-person requirement “to minimize the burden on the healthcare delivery system” and “to ensure that the benefits of the drug outweigh the risks.”
No effective date for the change was immediately given.
The FDA approved medication abortions up to 10 weeks’ gestation in 2000 but imposed strict restrictions, requiring that the first pill be picked up in-person at specifically certified providers who mist sign an agreement and obtain the patient’s signature on a form acknolwedging the provider informed them about the drug.
Despite the in-person requirement to obtain the pill, patients were permitted to take the drug at home.
Abortion rights advocates praised the FDA’s decision to lift the long-running restriction, as the Supreme Court weighs potential rollbacks to federal abortion laws.
“With Roe vs. Wade hanging by a thread, it is especially urgent that the federal government do everything in its power to expand access to this medication,” Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said, adding the change “will allow many patients to access care earlier with fewer burdens and costs.”
Anti-abortion groups, however, panned the decision.
“The further along in the pregnancy that you use the pills, the greater the complications, the greater the failure rate and then the greater opportunity to get infected or end up in the emergency room,” Susan Liebel, state director for the Susan B. Anthony List, said.
This year six states banned the mailing of pills, seven passed laws requiring pills be obtained in person from a provider and four passed laws to set the limit on medication abortion at earlier than 10 weeks’ gestation, Elizabeth Nash, the interim associate director of state issues for the Guttmacher Institute, told The New York Times.
Conversely, states such as California and New York are expected to take steps to expand the availability of pills by mail and provide opportunities for patients in states with restrictions to travel to their states to obtain them.
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