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The FDA relaxes controversial restrictions on access to abortion pill by mail

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Access to abortion pills is getting a little bit easier. The Food and Drug Administration says it is permanently making it possible to receive abortion pills through the mail. The change promises to alter the battle over abortion rights even as the Supreme Court considers whether to overturn Roe v. Wade. Here's NPR's Sarah McCammon. Sarah, good morning.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Can't people already get abortion pills in the mail?

MCCAMMON: They can. But the FDA is making what was just a temporary pandemic policy permanent. So this policy was put in place in response to the pandemic. And I need to explain that this abortion drug, mifepristone, which is used in combination with another drug to induce abortions up to about 10 weeks, in the past, it's required patients to go to a hospital or clinic to pick up the pills. But that was suspended during the pandemic. There was some legal back and forth for a while. Last year, the Trump administration was forced, through some litigation, to suspend that rule, fought that to the Supreme Court, which allowed the rule to be reinstated. Then the Biden administration came in and again suspended the rule. But now, Steve, the FDA is saying that will be permanent. Patients won't have to go to a clinic to get this drug.

INSKEEP: They would do some kind of telemedicine with a doctor, is that what the option is?

MCCAMMON: Right. For states where that is legal, it opens up the opportunity for doctors to speak to patients remotely and assess their readiness for this kind of treatment. About 40% of people who are seeking abortions in the U.S. choose medication abortion as opposed to a surgical procedure at a clinic. So this is an increasingly popular option. I talked yesterday with Dr. Julie Amaon. She's medical director for a group called Just the Pill that provides medication abortion and uses telemedicine. She says she'd hope the FDA would go even further in relaxing these rules because there are layers of rules for mifepristone, the abortion drug. But she says she's still pleased with this decision.

JULIE AMAON: I mean, I think the FDA should look at repealing all of the medically unnecessary restrictions that their REMS puts out for mifepristone. But this is a wonderful start. The fact that beyond the pandemic, patients can still get these safe medications delivered where it's convenient to them, that's huge.

INSKEEP: This feels like something that could potentially transform the abortion debate across the country, Sarah, because we are looking at the prospect, at least, of a state-by-state battle over abortion rights focused on abortion clinics. And this turns abortion into something that can happen anywhere.

MCCAMMON: Right. Abortion rights advocates hope that this will make abortion more accessible, particularly in states with more liberal abortion laws, because those states even now, Steve, are absorbing patients from states with more restrictive laws. Now, groups opposed to abortion rights are also concerned about this. And they are working at the state level to tighten up laws around medication abortion in addition to surgical abortion, of course. Catherine Glenn Foster is with Americans United for Life, a group that's promoting model legislation focused on limiting how the medication is prescribed.

CATHERINE GLENN FOSTER: Roe v. Wade looks set to be reversed in June. That's my hope. But the fight is going to continue until either our Constitution is rightly understood to protect all human life from abortion as a simple matter of justice or until every state does so in its state law.

MCCAMMON: The State of Texas just approved a law that restricts medication abortion. And activists are asking more states to do so in the coming months.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Thanks for your insights, really appreciate it.

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