If you assumed there’s not much to celebrate when it comes to the fight for reproductive rights, well, you’d be correct. Harsh abortion restrictions are sweeping the nation. Reproductive clinics are in danger across a broad swath of the South. Anti-abortion activists are setting their sights on new targets. And the Supreme Court may be poised to grant the right to harass women outside of abortion clinics.
But women are still winning some victories. On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled to block the harshest restriction on medication abortion in the nation, effectively protecting Arizona women’s access to the abortion pill.
The law in question requires abortion providers to adhere to the FDA’s guidelines for administering the abortion pill, which is the non-surgical method of terminating a first-trimester pregnancy. That sounds logical enough — indeed, that’s the whole point, since anti-choice laws are typically framed in seemingly innocuous terms of women’s health and safety. In reality, however, it doesn’t make much sense. Medical practice has evolved significantly since the FDA first wrote those guidelines.
Now, doctors know that a lower dose of the abortion-inducing medication is safer, more effective, and cheaper. And they know that the abortion pill is a safe option for women up to nine weeks of pregnancy. By forcing doctors to adhere to the FDA’s protocol, Arizona’s law essentially mandates an unnecessarily high dosage and limits women to taking the pill up to seven weeks of pregnancy. Major medical groups, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Medical Association (AMA), oppose Arizona’s law for exactly that reason.
Nonetheless, at the beginning of April, a federal judge allowed the law to take effect while a legal challenge against it proceeds. Reproductive health advocates decried the move to limit women’s legal options, particularly because the sole provider in the northern part of Arizona only offers the pill and doesn’t perform surgical abortions.
Now, a panel of 9th Circuit judges have reversed that earlier decision, determining that “the Arizona law imposes an undue — and therefore unconstitutional — burden on women’s access to abortion.” Although it’s not a final ruling, it does protect women’s access to the abortion pill while the lawsuit continues. And the appeals court saw right through the attempt to frame the law as a common sense method of keeping women safe, writing that the state has failed to prove that the restriction on medication abortion “advances in any way its interest in women’s health.”
“The message in today’s decision is clear: Politicians need to stop playing doctor, leave the practice of medicine to trained health care professionals, and stop meddling in women’s personal decisions about their health and families,” Nancy Northrup, the president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “The decision of this court is squarely in keeping with more than 40 years of established law safeguarding women’s constitutional right to safe, legal abortion care… It is a vital victory.”
Similar restrictions on medication abortion have been blocked in Oklahoma and North Dakota — but judges have upheld other laws in this area in Ohio and Texas. Depending on the final ruling on Arizona’s law, this issue could make it all the way up to the Supreme Court.