The Food and Drug Administration is reversing course on a Trump era rule and allowing patients to access the abortion pill without seeing a doctor in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, it announced this week.
Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock relayed the decision to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in a letter Monday, saying that a modification of the policy does “not appear to show increases in serious safety concerns” for the patient, while letting patients access mifepristone, the drug used to terminate early pregnancies, through telemedicine can help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
ACOG applauded the decision Tuesday, saying the previous policy was burdensome and dangerous.
“By halting enforcement of the in-person dispensing requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA is recognizing and responding to the available evidence,” the group said in a statement, “which has clearly and definitively demonstrated that the in-person dispensing requirement for mifepristone is unnecessary and restrictive.”
While the FDA had previously lifted the requirement during the pandemic, following a lawsuit by several medical and reproductive rights groups, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January that the Trump administration could reinstate it. The Trump-era policy was in effect until this week.
The drug is incredibly common. Since its approval more than two decades ago, 3.7 million women have used it to end their pregnancies. Today, about 40% of abortions in the U.S. are done using the medication.
While the pandemic elevated concerns around in-person care requirements, regulations around mifepristone access have been the subject of debate for years. ACOG and reproductive rights organizations have long advocated for lifting in-person appointments for mifepristone, saying medications with similar safety profiles don’t have such strict limits on them.
“Requiring the medicine to be dispensed in person, then taken elsewhere at the patients’ discretion, is arbitrary and does nothing to bolster the safety of an already-safe medicine,” ACOG said Tuesday.
That was a targeted attack on abortion access, said Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
“Trump allowed most prescriptions to go through mail during the pandemic, even highly addictive ones, but kept the medication rule in place,” she tweeted. “Not for science, for punishment.”
Reproductive rights groups said that while they’re pleased with the temporary modification going back into effect, they’re still pushing to make the change a permanent one.
“While we welcome this temporary change, we urge [the FDA] to continue to review the evidence and scientific data & permanently lift unnecessary restrictions” beyond the pandemic, the Center for Reproductive Rights wrote on Twitter.
Many Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, want to further limit access or outlaw mifepristone altogether. A bill moving through the Texas Legislature seeks to cut down the window for mifepristone use from the first 10 weeks of pregnancy to just seven weeks. Ohio lawmakers banned doctors from providing the pill at all earlier this year, but a judge has temporarily blocked the law in response to a Planned Parenthood lawsuit.