Rep. Cori Bush and Sen. Tina Smith introduced bicameral legislation Monday aimed at bolstering access to medication abortion as Republican-led states across the U.S. attempt to restrict distribution of the pills in their drive to ban abortion entirely.
If passed, the Protecting Access to Medication Abortion Act would codify into federal law the Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) for mifepristone, one of two medications commonly used in tandem to end a pregnancy. In December, the FDA permanently lifted its requirement that mifepristone be administered in person, allowing patients to receive the medication through the mail.
The new bill would also “ensure those seeking abortion care can always access medication abortion through telehealth and certified pharmacies, including mail-order pharmacies,” according to a summary released by Bush’s office.
While the U.S. Postal Service has said it won’t actively help GOP-led states block access to medication abortion and the Biden administration has warned pharmacists against denying people access to the pills, news reports indicate that some patients have been turned away when seeking mifepristone and misoprostol in states that have banned abortion following the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
“Abortion care is healthcare and, therefore, a human right—period,” Bush (D-Mo.) said in a statement. “While extremist anti-abortion lawmakers in states like Missouri use the recent decision made by the stolen Supreme Court to attack a person’s right to bodily autonomy, I remain committed to ensuring everyone in this country can have access to an abortion—no matter where they live.”
The high court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization prompted a surge of interest in abortion care via telemedicine, but sweeping state-level abortion bans enacted in recent weeks have raised questions about the legality of medication abortion and whether pregnant people will still be able to access the pills.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 19 U.S. states “require the clinician providing a medication abortion to be physically present when the medication is administered, thereby prohibiting the use of telemedicine to prescribe medication for abortion.”
As ABC News reported earlier this month, “Some legal scholars believe that state restrictions on medication abortion are subject to preemption challenges—meaning that federal oversight of the drug trumps state laws.”
“Because the FDA has approved and regulates mifepristone,” the outlet explained, “it may not be lawful for states to ban it.”
Some of the laws currently in place in Republican-led states are highly draconian. The Tampa Bay Times notes that “a physician who mails the medication to a Louisiana resident could face up to 10 years in prison and a $75,000 fine.”
“A new law in Tennessee makes distributing abortion pills through the mail a felony punishable by up to $50,000 in fines,” the Florida paper observes. “And South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem recently called for a special legislative session to craft new laws barring the practice. A 2015 law prohibits Florida physicians from prescribing the medications without an in-person visit at least 24 hours in advance—effectively outlawing telehealth abortions.”
Smith (D-Minn.), the only U.S. senator to have worked at Planned Parenthood, said Monday that “right now, extremist Republicans are attacking and undermining access to a safe and effective medication because they believe that the government—not women, not their healthcare providers—should control the healthcare that doctors provide women.”
“We need to fight back against Republicans’ ongoing efforts to chip away at women’s reproductive freedoms,” said Smith. “Our bill, which would safeguard access to medication abortion, is a critical step that would help protect what remaining access exists to reproductive healthcare.”
In a one-pager outlining the new legislation—which faces an uphill battle in the U.S. Senate due to likely opposition from the GOP and at least one right-wing Democrat—Bush’s office states that “extremist anti-abortion lawmakers are attacking access to medication abortion, and even going so far as to criminalize it.”
“States have imposed restrictions that contradict scientific evidence,” the document continues, “by requiring healthcare providers to be physically present when administering the drug to a patient, prohibiting medication abortion before 10 weeks gestation, or only allowing physicians—and not other healthcare professionals—to administer medication abortion.”
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