Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Federal appeals court in New Orleans considers the fate of an abortion pill


The abortion pill known as mifepristone, or Mifeprex, is at the center of another court case that could end up at the Supreme Court.


Today, attorneys are gathering in New Orleans at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to argue a case that could remove this medication from the U.S. market completely. Together with misoprostol, it's a medication that's been used for decades to manage miscarriages and provide abortions. It's now the most common method of abortion across the U.S.

FADEL: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to lay out what this lawsuit is about and what's happening today. Hi, Selena.


FADEL: Good morning. OK, so jog people's memories here. This is a case that started in Texas and was all over the news last month.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, exactly. So it's a case filed originally in a district court in Amarillo, Texas. A conservative group called the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine is challenging the FDA's original approval of the medication more than 20 years ago. And early last month, a federal judge named Matthew Kacsmaryk agreed with the full argument and would have put a hold on the approval of mifepristone as the legal case proceeded, which caused a huge reaction, as you might remember.

FADEL: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This medication is used for abortion and miscarriages regularly. And for about a week, no one knew if it was about to get pulled off of the shelves. So finally, the Supreme Court intervened, and mifepristone is still available for now.

FADEL: And what happens today?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Today, there will be oral arguments in the case. A panel of three judges in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear each side's arguments.

Yesterday, I spoke with Erik Baptist, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney who is challenging FDA's approval process for mifepristone.

ERIK BAPTIST: We will urge the court to uphold everything that the district court held that the approval in 2000 for mifepristone was unlawful for multiple reasons.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Those reasons have to do with the procedures the FDA followed and safety issues, he says.

I also spoke yesterday with Rabia Muqaddam, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is not part of the lawsuit, but supports the Department of Justice's defense of mifepristone. She says the plaintiffs have put forth junk science to support their arguments.

RABIA MUQADDAM: The other aspect of this case that is really preposterous is that none of the plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are actually suffering any harm, so they don't have standing to bring this case.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The oral arguments are happening this afternoon in a federal courtroom in New Orleans, and audio from the hearing will be livestreamed and open to the public.

FADEL: So any predictions about what's going to happen?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the 5th Circuit is known as a conservative court, and this panel of three judges has already shown in their earlier decision last month that they're persuaded by at least some of the challengers' arguments. For instance, they used the term chemical abortion in that ruling, which is an anti-abortion movement term that the plaintiffs use to describe the use of this medication, which is pretty charged language. So the pharmaceutical industry and reproductive rights supporters and former FDA officials, who all support mifepristone, are bracing for a decision that says access should be limited, at least in some way. And this case is about mifepristone everywhere, not just in states that limit abortion, so the stakes are huge.

FADEL: Yeah, the stakes are huge. Could anything change right away?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Probably not. The Supreme Court has put a hold on any changes to access to mifepristone for a good long while. OB-GYNs say patients are quite confused about this, so this is an important thing to emphasize - mifepristone remains legal and available right now. Attorneys in this case expect a ruling from these judges in the next few weeks or months. It will almost certainly be appealed to the Supreme Court, which may hear arguments in the fall and issue a decision next spring, but that's all just a guess. Anything can happen.

FADEL: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, I'm sure you'll be back soon to talk about the continuing legal back-and-forth on this. Thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.