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FDA relaxes restrictions on abortion pill

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Biden administration is relaxing decades-old restrictions on a pill used to induce abortions in early pregnancy. The Food and Drug Administration announced this afternoon that it is doing away with the requirement that patients pick up the pills in person. To speak more about this is NPR's Sarah McCammon. Welcome back.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: Tell us more about the FDA decision. What exactly does it do?

MCCAMMON: Well, the FDA is loosening one of the rules for prescribing an abortion pill called mifepristone, which advocates have said is a major barrier to access for patients. Mifepristone is subject to a series of additional regulations on top of normal prescription drugs. These are for drugs deemed particularly dangerous, and they include special requirements for doctors who prescribe the pills. Until recently, patients had to pick up the pills in person at a hospital or clinic. Now, that rule was suspended because of COVID, and now the Biden administration is permanently doing away with that rule while leaving some of the other regulations in place. And this all comes in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU on behalf of reproductive rights and medical groups who say the rules are outdated and medically unnecessary.

CORNISH: So what will access to the drug look like now?

MCCAMMON: Well, it means doctors can continue prescribing the drug and sending it through the mail. Currently, since the rules have been somewhat relaxed during the pandemic, patients in many states, depending on their state laws, can get a prescription using telemedicine. So doctors screen the patients with a series of questions, and then they can prescribe the abortion pill and have them mailed. Fabiola Carrion with the National Health Law Program says many patients prefer this, taking the pills at home, to going into a clinic for a surgical procedure.

FABIOLA CARRION: It's less intrusive. They can have their abortions at home. So it provides - especially now that potentially half of the states could lose access to abortion, it could be one of the additional tools that people can use to access their abortion.

MCCAMMON: So she's saying this option could be especially important for patients in states with increasing restrictions, especially if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

CORNISH: What's been the response so far?

MCCAMMON: Well, it's an action that both reproductive rights groups and many medical groups, like the American Medical Association, have been calling for for years now. They point to decades of data. Mifepristone was approved by the FDA in 2000, and they say that demonstrates that it's very safe and effective. So abortion rights groups are pleased, although they would have liked the FDA to go further and do away with all of these extra layers of rules. Opponents of abortion rights, meanwhile, are concerned. They're taking note of the fact that about 40% of abortions today are medication abortions. Here's Kristan Hawkins with Students for Life of America on a press call earlier today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTAN HAWKINS: And today we may very well be confronting a brand-new frontier of abortion - no-test online chemical abortion distribution - in essence, death by mail delivered to your doorstep.

MCCAMMON: So she'd like to see states pass more restrictive laws surrounding abortion pills.

CORNISH: What about people in states like Texas - right? - that does have a restrictive law around abortion?

MCCAMMON: Right. That state, of course, has a law banning most abortions after about six weeks. Another law just took effect this month that also puts restrictions on abortion pills, prescribing them - allowing them to be prescribed just up to seven weeks instead of the 10 allowed by the FDA and prohibiting the mailing of the pills. It's not clear how enforceable that is, particularly if patients are seeing doctors out of state or even overseas.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.