A longtime Food and Drug Administration regulation has mandated that mifepristone—one of two drugs typically involved in medication abortion—be dispensed in person, at a hospital or clinic, even though the pills can be self-administered safely at home. (And in fact, the entire process of the actual passing of the pregnancy usually occurs there.) Under the rule, people seeking medication abortions had to travel just as far as they would if they were getting an in-clinic procedure, which for most people is pretty far. In 2014, roughly 90 percent of counties had no abortion clinic, and 39 percent of women of reproductive age lived in one of those counties.
And obviously the rule had unique implications once the pandemic hit: Requiring patients to visit a clinic just to be handed a pack of pills was not only an unnecessary obstacle to abortion, but an unnecessary risk of exposure to covid for everyone involved.
A federal judge lifted the rule for the first time in July, after multiple reproductive justice organizations filed a civil suit challenging the FDA restrictions. But this past January, the Supreme Court allowed the Trump administration to reinstate the in-person dispensing requirement, closing what The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant had called “a window of possibility on self-managed abortion.” During that roughly six-month period, patients were able to receive abortion pills by mail or through a pharmacy, which studies show is overwhelmingly safe and effective.
Now the window of possibility is open one again. There’s widespread consensus among reproductive health experts and prestigious medical associations that the FDA’s restrictions on abortion pills are medically unnecessary. Even Jane Henney, the former FDA commissioner who oversaw the agency when the rules went into effect, has called for them to be re-evaluated, arguing that they “may no longer be appropriate.”
The pandemic may still be far from over, but when it finally ends people will still need safe, accessible abortions. If Biden truly “believes in science”—as he so often says he does when it comes to climate change and covid, for example—he’ll lift the FDA restrictions permanently.