The FDA just removed a key restriction on abortion pills. Here’s why it won’t help women in pro-life states

The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday ended a long-standing requirement that patients obtain abortion pills in person from a clinic, marking a victory for pro-choice groups that complained the restriction hurt people who were unable to travel to access care.

Pregnant patients will now be able to receive abortion pill prescriptions through online consultations and have them delivered by mail.

At least six states have only one abortion provider, meaning some people had to travel long distances for abortions. One-fifth of those patients must travel more than 50 miles one-way to receive clinical abortion care, according to data from 2014, the latest available. Because of more recent abortion restrictions, the average distance traveled has likely grown. 

The news of the FDA’s rule change comes as the Supreme Court weighs a case that could significantly alter the precedent set by Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion legal nationwide. A decision by the court to upend the precedent would create a divided America. Abortions in some states like New York and California would remain unfettered. Meanwhile, abortions in 26 other states would likely be banned or severely restricted. 

Lifting restrictions on abortion pills will also fall along a blue state/red state divide and mean little to women who are already unable to access easy abortion care. Using telemedicine to get abortion pills is already banned in 19 states, including Ohio, Oklahoma, Montana, Indiana, Arkansas, Arizona, and Texas. Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, said in a statement that at least seven more states will introduce similar legislation next year. 

Earlier this year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA temporarily lifted in-person requirements on mifepristone, a commonly-used drug for terminating pregnancies. In reaction, this year alone, six states banned the mailing of pills, seven passed laws requiring pills to be obtained in person, and four passed laws to further restrict using medication for abortion.

In general, patients are authorized to use abortion pills during their first 10 weeks of gestation.

People who don’t live in states that permit telemedicine consultations for abortions can travel to other states that do. They can receive the pills at any address in the state where they called from. 

About 1 in 4 of all abortions and 54% of all abortions before 10 weeks were administered using abortion pills in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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