The US supreme court has reinstated a requirement that women visit a hospital or clinic to obtain a drug used for medication-induced abortions, lifting an order by a lower court allowing the drug to be posted or delivered during the coronavirus pandemic.
The justices granted a request by the Trump administration to lift a federal judge’s July order that had suspended the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) rule requiring in-person visits.
The pandemic is still raging nationwide. Infections remain at record highs in many states and nearly 130,000 Americans were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 as of midnight on Monday. The country has reported 22.5 million infections and 376,188 deaths.
The court’s three liberal justices said they would have denied the Trump administration’s request while litigation over the dispute continued in lower courts.
A district judge in Maryland, Theodore Chuang, had ruled that owing to the health risks that Covid-19 poses, the in-person requirements “place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a medication abortion” and were likely to violate their constitutional rights.
He said the government had also taken actions to, in effect, waive several in-person requirements for dispensing other drugs, including opioids.
The dispute centres on the FDA’s requirement that the drug mifepristone, one of two pills used to perform a medication abortion, be dispensed in-person by a certified prescriber. Medication abortions are approved through the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Groups representing tens of thousands of physicians, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, sued the FDA in May, saying that requiring in-person visits to pick up a pill needlessly exposes patients, doctors, and workers to a greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
The groups said this was especially true given that evaluations and counselling may be done through telemedicine and that the drug may be taken elsewhere.
The supreme court chief justice, John Roberts, said the dispute was not generally about the right to abortion but rather courts’ deference to government decisions related to the pandemic.