Federal Appeals Court Appears Ready to Severely Limit Access to FDA-Approved Abortion Pill

Abortion pill
A federal appeals court is deliberating over restricting access to an abortion medication.Getty

A conservative federal appeals court in New Orleans appeared highly skeptical of Justice Department arguments that a popular abortion pill should remain on the market.

A conservative federal appeals court in New Orleans appears ready to restrict access to the nation's most popular abortion pill, which was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration 23 years ago.

The three-judge panel heard arguments Wednesday from attorneys representing the U.S. Justice Department and the drug's manufacturer, Danco Laboratories, who asserted that mifepristone, one of two drugs used in 50% of the country's medicine abortions, should remain widely available.

At the outset of a two-hour hearing, the judges pushed back against those arguments. 

Seconds into a presentation by Justice Department lawyer Sarah Harrington, she was interuppted by Judge James Ho, a Donald Trump appointee, who criticized her characterization of the case as "an unprecedented and unjustified attack on FDA scientific expertise.”

The court has heard other cases against the FDA, he interjected. 

“I hate to cut you off so early, but you’ve said unprecedented. We had a challenge to the FDA just yesterday,” Ho said.

At issue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is whether to uphold the April ruling of a Texas federal judge who said the FDA's approval of the drug in 2000 was invalid.

The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit hears appeals from Texas.

The case, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, is considered one of the most significant legal actions regarding abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the constitutional right to abortion.

The outcome could drastically restrict medication abortions, even in states where abortion is legal.

The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine is a conservative group of anti-abortion doctors that sued the FDA in Texas federal court in November. The plaintiffs argued the agency used an incorrect process to approve mifepristone, and claimed the pills are unsafe. The suit asked for the drug to be withdrawn from the market.

After April's Texas ruling deeming the government's approval process invalid, a series of competing court orders ensued, with the issue ultimately landing at the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted full access to the drug while the appellate process continues.

The case is likely to end up back at the nation's highest court.

In court filings, the FDA asserted the drug was reliable and dependable.

“Americans have been safely using mifepristone for over two decades. More than five million women in the United States have used mifepristone to terminate their pregnancies, as have millions of other women around the world," the agency said.

"And study after study has shown that serious adverse events are exceedingly rare," the FDA concluded.

The New Orleans court is now deliberating the case and could issue its ruling at any time.

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