Thanks to a policy change from the Food and Drug Administration announced on Wednesday, it may get harder for anti-choice lawmakers to rely on unscientific information to restrict women’s access to the abortion pill.
The FDA intends to change its years-old label for the abortion pill, medically known as mifepristone. Wednesday’s move will update the agency’s previous guidelines for mifepristone — which were first issued back in 2000 and have since become outdated.
“We are delighted that the FDA has approved a label change, which brings the label for mifepristone in line with scientific research and evidence-based practice,” Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation, said in a statement.
In the years since mifepristone was initially approved by the FDA, doctors learned more about how it works. Medical professionals quickly confirmed that it’s just as safe and effective when prescribed at lower dosages and later in pregnancy. In practice, this expands access the abortion pill because it allows patients to take the pill at a lower price and during a bigger window of time.
In light of that information, abortion doctors stopped following the official FDA label and started prescribing mifepristone differently than directed. As far back as 2001, more than 80 percent of providers were no longer using the FDA-approved protocol for medication abortion.
This type of evolving medical practice is very common. The FDA is often slow to update its official guidance, and it can be costly for drug manufacturers to complete the complicated process of re-labeling. So it’s not unusual for drugs to be prescribed for off-label use. In fact, thanks to the emerging scientific evidence in the field, major medical groups like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have for years opposed using the outdated FDA protocol.
But anti-abortion lawmakers — who have mounted an incremental strategy based on chipping away at abortion from all angles — were quick to exploit the discrepancy between the official FDA label and the real-world medical practice. States started passing laws requiring doctors to stick to the outdated FDA method of prescribing the abortion pill. It was easy for politicians to misleadingly argue that they were simply interested in keeping women safe and ensuring that abortion patients aren’t taking dangerous, unregulated drugs.
The FDA’s label change essentially removes this talking point from the anti-choice playbook.
“Actual practice will not change,” Saporta noted. “What will change is that politicians can no longer deny women access to this safe and effective method of early abortion care by insisting on an out-dated regimen. We hope the new label changes will soon allow women to access medical abortion care in states where anti-choice restrictions have made this evidence-based care unavailable.”
The change is particularly significant because it could affect abortion care in Texas, where a harsh anti-abortion law is currently pending before the Supreme Court. Texas’ current restrictions on medication abortion include a requirement that doctors follow the outdated FDA regimen.
“This label change will dramatically expand access for women not only in Texas, but throughout our clinics nationwide,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, the president of Whole Woman’s Health and the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, said in a press release. “Whole Woman’s Health has a strong commitment to make Medication Abortion an option for all our patients and we look forward to implementing this new label change in our clinics in the coming days.”
The abortion pill is the safest and most non-invasive option for women who want to end an early pregnancy. It’s also very popular. According to Hagstrom Miller, up to 50 percent of her patients chose medication abortion before Texas’ new law took effect. But politically motivated restrictions on the abortion pill drive down those numbers; Hagstrom Miller says they’ve “decreased dramatically” thanks to the additional barriers in Texas.