FDA relaxes restrictions on access to abortion pill by mail The agency's decision to ease access to the drug mifepristone comes at a time when abortion rights are being increasingly restricted nationwide.

FDA relaxes controversial restrictions on access to abortion pill by mail

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Today, about 40% of patients choosing to end their pregnancies do so using pills rather than having a surgical procedure. One of the pills continues to be heavily regulated and heavily politicized. Medical groups and reproductive rights advocates have been pushing the federal government to relax some of those rules. And as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, that could happen as soon as tomorrow.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Before the pandemic, doctors like Nisha Verma could only prescribe abortion pills to patients they'd seen in person.

NISHA VERMA: They come in. They take the first pill of the medication abortion with us after receiving extensive counseling, confirming that they're sure that they want to move forward with this process. And then the second set of pills that completes the abortion process we send home with them, and they take those at home.

MCCAMMON: Verma is an OB-GYN and abortion provider based in Washington, D.C. She's talking about the abortion pill mifepristone, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration more than 20 years ago. It's used in combination with another drug to terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks, and it's subject to layers of restrictions beyond typical prescription drugs. Because of the pandemic, the Biden administration is currently allowing patients to get the pills by mail.

VERMA: It really does make a difference for a lot of people, and they can just hop onto their phone or computer. We can do a telehealth visit, go over counseling, and then they can get the pill by mail.

MCCAMMON: Verma says that's particularly important for women in rural areas far from the nearest clinic. Julia Kaye is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents medical and reproductive rights groups who are pushing the FDA to permanently do away with several restrictions on the pill.

JULIA KAYE: At this moment, with Roe v. Wade hanging by a thread, it is especially urgent that the federal government do everything in its power to follow the science and expand access to this safe, effective medication.

MCCAMMON: As more states pass restrictions, she says, making it easier for doctors to prescribe the pill could make abortion available for more people. Groups opposed to abortion rights have long fought efforts to relax the rules, arguing that could put patients at risk. Melanie Israel is with the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.

MELANIE ISRAEL: There is a reason that these safety protocols have been in place, and the abortion industry is really trying to seize this moment to remove those important safety restrictions and make abortion pills more widely available and more common.

MCCAMMON: But a new study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine found no increase in complications after Canada made mifepristone available by a doctor's prescription in 2017. Dr. Verma is also a fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which has lobbied to remove the FDA restrictions. She says doctors prescribing the pills through telemedicine ask questions designed to rule out risk factors. And she says the pandemic has added two years of research demonstrating mifepristone safety.

VERMA: We've really seen that this is completely safe and that these FDA regulations are based on politics. They're not based on science or evidence. You know, medications with similar risks, similar safety profiles are not regulated the same way.

MCCAMMON: Even if the FDA relaxes or removes the restrictions altogether, the battle over abortion pills will likely continue in state legislatures, where some lawmakers have passed their own restrictions. Earlier this month, a new law took effect in Texas that makes sending the pills through the mail a felony.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

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