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Supreme Court blocks lower court decision in case on FDA approval of abortion pill


We begin the hour with news of the Supreme Court order issued last night on the abortion drug mifepristone. Earlier this month, lower court decisions banned or limited access to it. For now, the order means the drug will continue to be widely available for medication abortions in the U.S. We are joined now by Martha Bebinger, who covers health care for member station WBUR in Boston. Martha, thanks for being with us.

MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And what did the Supreme Court do exactly last night about this abortion pill that a lot of people couldn't name even a couple of weeks ago?

BEBINGER: Right. And mifepristone may still not be a household name, but it sure is getting a lot of attention. So today, that's because justices paused lower court rulings and agreed to keep mifepristone available for the immediate future. At least two justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, dissented. Now, the case goes back to the appeals court, which is scheduled to hear arguments in less than a month. It's quite likely the Supreme Court will eventually hear this case, too.

SIMON: What are the practical, immediate effects for patients?

BEBINGER: Well, mifepristone, in combination with another abortion pill, can still be given through the 10th week of pregnancy. It can be prescribed using telehealth and the mail. That's something the lower courts had said should be stopped. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can continue to offer it, as well as physicians. And most significantly, Scott, mifepristone is still an approved FDA drug, even though a federal judge in Texas said it should not have been approved 23 years ago.

SIMON: Martha, the ruling has been out just a few hours. What have you been able to hear from doctors and legal experts so far?

BEBINGER: Well, I hopped on a Zoom call last night with a smiling Dr. Kate White just after the news broke. She's an OB-GYN at Boston Medical Center and performs abortions.

KATE WHITE: There's not been a lot of good news in any of these rulings recently. So I have to say I was surprised and incredibly relieved at this one.

BEBINGER: Dr. White says she's relieved, Scott, because she can keep offering patients one of the safest abortion options. That's this two-pill combination that includes mifepristone. On the other hand, many abortion opponents told me they're disappointed. Mary FioRito specializes in abortion law at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and she says at least she won't have to wait long because this appeals court is going to investigate the mifepristone safety concerns soon.

MARY FIORITO: The more fact-finding there is on the possible medical dangers of it and the long-term effects of taking it, particularly for younger girls, I think the better off everyone will be.

BEBINGER: FioRito is especially worried about how easy it is to order mifepristone online and take abortion pills without ever seeing a doctor or nurse. But clinicians say when patients follow the guidelines, even if they don't see a doctor or nurse, an abortion using pills is still far less risky than a full-term pregnancy.

SIMON: Martha, what's ahead in this dispute over mifepristone?

BEBINGER: Well, it's kind of a tangled thread. There's the case we've been discussing about whether mifepristone should remain available. That will be heard by the federal appeals court in mid-May. There's another federal court decision, this one out of Washington state. It says there should be no change in access to mifepristone. So that could become part of a Supreme Court review. And then in addition, the largest mifepristone manufacturer in the U.S. just this week sued the federal government, saying you can't take our drug off the market. So we could be talking about mifepristone for months, maybe well into next year.

SIMON: Member station WBUR's Martha Bebinger. Thanks so much.

BEBINGER: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.