Supreme Court drops Oklahoma 'abortion pill' case

Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling permitting medical abortions remains in place

Pro- and anti-abortion-rights activists rally face to face in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on the 40th anniversary of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sidestepped what would have been its first abortion case since 2007, declining a case about overturned restrictions on the RU-486 abortion pill.

The dismissal means that last week's Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling, which invalidated a 2011 state law restricting medical abortions, is final. The state supreme court said the law violated the Constitution by effectively banning abortion-inducing drugs.

In a one-line order on Monday, the Supreme Court dismissed the Oklahoma case, Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, as "improvidently granted."

The Center for Reproductive Rights, the group that had challenged the law, said the Supreme Court's action means women in Oklahoma will once again have access to drug-induced abortions and nonsurgical treatment for ectopic pregnancies — when an embryo implants outside the uterus — which are usually not viable.

"The Supreme Court has let stand a strong decision by the Oklahoma Supreme Court that recognized this law for what it is: an outright ban on a safe method of ending a pregnancy in its earliest stages and an unconstitutional attack on women's health and rights," the group's president, Nancy Northup, said in a statement.

The RU-486 "abortion pill" differs from the emergency contraception "morning-after pill" in that the former may be used, in tandem with another drug, to induce abortion up to seven weeks into a pregnancy.

In June the Supreme Court said it would review the case but first asked the state court to clarify what exactly the state law prohibited and whether it conflicted with U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidance.

By declining now to hear the case, the United States' highest court signaled that while it would not shy away from reviewing abortion regulations in some instances, it is not eager to revisit earlier disputed decisions on the right to abortion in general terms.

Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who defended the law, did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

'Most extreme ban'

Jennifer Dalven, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that no U.S. Supreme Court has ever upheld a law as strict as the Oklahoma statute. "This was the most extreme ban in the nation," she said.

The 2011 Oklahoma law prevented doctors from off-label use of the drug mifepristone, also known as the "abortion pill."

The drug, sold by Danco Laboratories under the name Mifeprex, was approved by the FDA in 2000, subject to the instructions on the label. But the off-label use prohibited by the law  which can involve higher doses and less doctor oversight — developed later and is now widely preferred for medical abortion.

"Ninety-six percent of medication abortions in the United States are now provided according to a regimen different from the one described in mifepristone's F.D.A.-approved label," the State Supreme Court said on Tuesday in a clarification of its ruling. The court noted that a ban on off-label use therefore "effectively bans all medical abortions."

But pro-life groups say the FDA has put restrictions in place on abortion pills to safeguard women's health.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court decision "places women's lives at risk while siding with an abortion industry bent on pushing women in and out of clinics quickly, without regard to their health or best interests,” said Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, in a statement last Thursday.

Under the Supreme Court's 1992 ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, an abortion regulation can be legal as long as it does not impose an "undue burden" on women seeking the procedure.

In that case, the justices reaffirmed the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, in which the court first held that women had the right to seek an abortion.

In a related action on Monday, opponents of a new Texas law that imposes abortion restrictions asked the high court to reimpose a federal court stay on a measure that prevents doctors from performing abortions unless they have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Texas is required to file its response with the Supreme Court by Nov. 12.

The Texas law also contains restrictions on drug-induced abortions, but that issue is not before the Supreme Court. The appeals court let stand the district judge's decision to block the state from enforcing the FDA's "abortion pill" protocol for women who are 50 to 63 days pregnant if a doctor determines a surgical abortion is unsafe.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon consider whether to hear another abortion-related case, concerning a law enacted in Arizona in 2012 that bans abortions after 20 weeks except for medical emergencies. An appeals court blocked the law, prompting the state to ask for Supreme Court review.

Al Jazeera with Reuters

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