© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Supreme Court mifepristone case could make abortions even harder to access in Kansas City

Mifepristone is a medication used to end early pregnancies and to relieve the symptoms of  miscarriage. It's heavily restricted by the FDA.
Adria Malcolm
Mifepristone is a medication used to end early pregnancies and to relieve the symptoms of miscarriage. It's heavily restricted by the FDA.

The Supreme Court heard a case Tuesday about whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration overstepped when it revised requirements for how a medication abortion drug should be dosed and prescribed. The case was brought by attorney Erin Hawley, the wife of Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley.

A case before the U.S. Supreme Court could drastically restrict access to medication abortions, now the most common form of abortion in the United States.

That could further limit abortion options for Missouians, who must cross the state line to get a legal abortion. It could also increase the number of patients coming to Kansas, trying to escape abortion bans that have swept through the region since the high court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

“Missourians already are getting pushed farther and farther from home because they can’t get in for an appointment,” said Emily Wales, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which operates three abortion clinics in Kansas. “So throwing in a medically unnecessary additional problem is not going to help anybody.”

The Supreme Court is considering whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration overstepped when it revised requirements for how mifepristone, one of the drugs commonly used in medication abortions, should be dosed and prescribed.

Medication abortions, which rely on a regimen of two drugs, rather than surgery, to end early-stage pregnancies, have played a significant part in keeping abortion access available in the United States as restrictions on the procedure multiply.

A recent Guttmacher Institute report found that medication abortions made up 63% of all abortions last year, when the total number of U.S. abortions surpassed 1 million for the first time since 2012. They made up 53% of abortions in 2020, 39% in 2017 and only 6% in 2001.

That trend has drawn more attention to medication abortions from anti-abortion activists. And some legal experts believe the Supreme Court looks poised to hand down a decision later this year that would severely hinder abortion pill access.

The anti-abortion groups who brought the case — Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration — want to roll back medication abortion restrictions, saying doctors need to be involved and the drugs need to be prescribed in person, not through telehealth.

The FDA said that mifepristone is safer than ibuprofen or penicillin and almost never leads to health complications.

But plaintiffs, represented by Erin Hawley, an attorney and the wife of Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, argue that doctors with moral objections to abortion are forced to treat patients who show up in the emergency room after taking mifepristone. They want the court to throw out the FDA’s original 2000 approval of the abortion pill, along with revisions the agency made to dosage recommendations and how it is prescribed.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lower court’s decision to order the FDA to revoke mifepristone’s approval, but said the agency was wrong to change dispensing and prescribing rules in 2016 and 2021. It is those changes, along with whether the plaintiffs had legal standing to bring the case, that the Supreme Court is considering.

If the court upholds the appeals court’s decision, requirements could be rolled back to what they were in 2011. If that happens, medication abortions would only be available up to seven weeks in a pregnancy — down from 10 weeks — and the drug could only be dispensed at a clinic, medical office or hospital by or under the supervision of a certified physician. That could spell the end for virtual appointments and drugs sent.

It could also drive more women to Wichita from Texas and Oklahoma, where abortion is outlawed. All three abortion clinics in the city have seen a surge in out-of-state patients. Trust Women, Wichita’s largest abortion provider, saw just over 5,000 patients last year, the highest number in the clinic’s history and more than triple what it saw in 2021.

“The biggest consequences of this decision could be that telehealth (abortions) would no longer be available in any of the 50 states,” said Ushma Upadhyay, professor and public health scientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Upadhyay said that’s exactly what abortion opponents are hoping.

“They want telehealth to stop because they know that it is effectively working to weaken the abortion bans and to weaken the impact of banning abortions,” she said.

Medication abortions offered through telehealth appointments also have driven a rise in virtual clinics, which allow doctors to see patients online and send prescriptions through the mail.

ANSIRH (Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health) at the University of California, San Francisco, says the U.S. had 69 virtual clinics in 2022, compared to just 32 in 2021, the first year the drugs could be sent through the mail.

In states like Missouri, where abortion is almost entirely banned but abortion rights groups are working to change the state constitution to restore rights, abortion providers say more patients are getting access to abortion pills through virtual clinics.

Through groups like AidAccess, patients can get telehealth appointments and medication mailed to them for $150, Upadhyay said. It would cost hundreds more if the patient had to travel to a state where abortion is legal for an in-person appointment.

Six states — California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Washington — have shield laws that protect doctors who offer abortion care to patients living in states where abortion is banned.

Abortion opponents are also opposed to abortion medication being sent through the mail. The plaintiffs in the case before the Supreme Court have argued that the FDA’s change to allow providers to mail mifepristone violated an 1873 anti-obscenity law known as the Comstock Act.

If the court buys that argument, much more could be at risk, said Yvonne Lindgren, associate professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Abortion opponents could argue that the 19th century law also restricts shipment of other equipment needed to provide abortions.

“The Comstock Act is a threat to abortion anyplace in the United States,” Lindgren said.

Legal experts also warn that the case could open the door for lawsuits anytime the agency makes a recommendation about a drug.

“If it’s not the rigorous FDA protocol that determines the safety and efficacy of a drug,” said Wales, “and instead it’s a judge sitting in any state that could control care around the country, that’s really concerning to every patient of every possible type of medical care.”

Legal restrictions haven’t stopped abortions in the country so far, studies show. In fact, the number of abortions increased last year nationwide, showing the biggest jump in states like Kansas that still have protections.

New legal hurdles won’t change that, said Dr. Kelly Pfeifer, a family medicine doctor from California who serves as director of Aria Medical Clinic, a medication-only abortion clinic in Wichita.

Pfeifer said her clinic, which saw 3,100 patients in 2023 — nearly all from states where abortion is no longer legally available, will be ready for even more if the court adds more restrictions.

“The reasons people get abortions have not changed,” Pfeifer said. “People will do what they need to do to be able to decide when and if to parent.”

This story was originally published by the Beacon Kansas City.

Suzanne King Raney is The Kansas City Beacon's health reporter. During her newspaper career, she has covered education, local government and business. At The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Business Journal she wrote about the telecommunications industry. Email her at suzanne@thebeacon.media.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.