Catholic bishops back federal court ruling against ‘lethal’ abortion drug

CNA 5d013065e9a7b 156707 1 Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington. | Kate Veik/CNA

The U.S. Catholic bishops have praised a federal court’s action to restore limits on the use of the abortion drug mifepristone and urged an end to the distribution of the life-ending drug, just hours before the Supreme Court announced a temporary stay on the decision.

“The 5th Circuit was right to recognize the dangers of unrestricted chemical abortion to women’s health and safety. We are grateful for the restoration of protections and any limitation on the use of these lethal drugs.” Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said Friday.

“We hope that the final ruling will result in removal of chemical abortion from the market altogether. Abortion is never the right choice for a difficult or unexpected pregnancy, as it always ends one life and risks another,” the bishops’ statement continued. “We pray ardently that our nation will authentically support and accompany women so that ending the lives of their children alone in their own homes will be unthinkable.”

Mifepristone is the first drug used in what is commonly a two-step regimen for a chemical abortion. The pill works to kill an unborn baby by cutting off the nutrients necessary for it to continue developing. A second drug, misoprostol, induces cramping and contractions to expel the baby’s body from the womb. According to the New York Times, many clinics and providers offer the drug up to 12 or 13 weeks into pregnancy, though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had only approved its use until 10 weeks.

A three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana, in a 2-1 Wednesday night decision, granted a partial stay of Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s April 7 ruling, which threatened to reverse FDA approval of the abortion drug entirely and halt distribution. However, the panel let stand the reinstatement of mifepristone restrictions the FDA had removed in 2016 and 2021.

Mifepristone’s approved use now will be limited to the first seven weeks of pregnancy, instead of the previous 10-week limit. Its use will require a follow-up doctor’s visit to check for complications after a chemical abortion. The drug will no longer be permitted to be distributed via mail without an in-person doctor visit, which the FDA had allowed since 2021 as an emergency pandemic measure it then made permanent.

The abortion pill mifepristone remains legal for the time being. 

The appellate court panel said plaintiffs faced procedural obstacles in challenging the original approval of the drug. The current FDA rules, it said, constituted “an exceedingly unusual regime” because it “chose to cut out doctors from the prescription and administration of mifepristone,” CNN reported.

“In fact, as far as the record before us reveals, FDA has not structured the distribution of any comparable drug in this way,” the panel’s ruling said.

The Biden administration and mifepristone manufacturer Danco Laboratories said they would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. On Friday U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. issued a temporary stay until midnight on Wednesday to allow the justices time to consider the appeal.

Mifepristone was first approved by the FDA in 2000.

Chemical abortions now account for over half of all U.S. abortions. The outcome of the court case will have major implications across the country, including in states where abortion is legal.

The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, whose partners include the Catholic Medical Association, had filed the lawsuit challenging the abortion drug’s approval. It charged that the FDA failed to abide by its legal obligations when approving the drug. The lawsuit alleges that the FDA never studied the drug under its currently labeled conditions of use and “ignored the potential impacts of the hormone-blocking regimen on the developing bodies of adolescent girls.” It also states that the agency disregarded evidence that chemical abortions cause more complications than surgical abortions.

The lawsuit further alleges that the FDA wrongly eliminated certain safeguards in its changes to allow mifepristone to be provided through the mail and to be sold through pharmacies that obtain FDA approval.

The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal group dedicated to causes including religious freedom and the sanctity of life.

ADF’s summary of the case, posted on its website, said that the FDA wrongly approved mifepristone by classifying pregnancy as an “illness” and by arguing that the abortion drug provides a “meaningful therapeutic benefit.” The abortion drug has a complication rate four times higher than surgical abortions, the legal group said, and one in five women who use the drug will suffer a medical complication and require further medical attention.

“The FDA illegally approved chemical abortion drugs and has evaded its legal responsibility to answer the American people’s questions for two decades,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Erin Hawley said April 13. “The FDA put politics ahead of the health of women and girls when it failed to study how dangerous the chemical abortion drug regimen is and when it unlawfully removed every meaningful safeguard, even allowing for mail-order abortions.”

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An amicus brief in the court case filed by Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and several Catholic groups objected that the removal of the in-person prescription requirement meant that doctors were unable to diagnose an ectopic pregnancy. Doctors also cannot determine whether the patient is giving free consent to an abortion or is facing coercion or duress in an abusive situation.

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