The Supreme Court's Next Big Abortion Decision

“Roe v. Wade, watch out. The Supreme Court will venture into the abortion debate later this year when it considers the constitutionality of an Oklahoma law restricting the use of oral medications for abortions. The case could have major implications for the 16 states that have passed laws limiting the use of drugs that induce abortions.

Oklahoma's governor signed the state's medicine abortion law in May 2011, putting in place new restrictions on the use of RU-486 (also known as mifepristone or Mifeprex) and any other ‘abortion-inducing drug.’ The law mandates that doctors follow the exact protocols for the drugs that are described on the Food and Drug Administration-approved label. Off-label use of drugs is legal and fairly common, and in the years since the drug was first approved for use in 2000, doctors have found that RU-486 and other drugs can be effective at lower doses and can be done with fewer visits to the doctor's office than outlined on the FDA label. Doctors have also found that RU-486 is effective up to nine weeks into a pregnancy, not the seven weeks for which it was originally approved. Oklahoma's law bans doctors from using that new knowledge to help their patients.

After Oklahoma's governor signed the law, the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice and the Center for Reproductive Rights sued—and won. A trial judge struck down the law in May 2012. When Oklahoma appealed to the state Supreme Court, it lost again. The state then appealed to the US Supreme Court, which indicated in June that it would consider the case. Reproductive rights groups say Oklahoma's law—and similar ones in other states—are a transparent attempt to limit access to medication abortions. The groups argue that the new laws would make medicine-induced abortions virtually inaccessible, since the drugs are so frequently used off-label. ‘What this law will do is deny women the benefits of nonsurgical options for terminating a pregnancy,’ says Julie Rikelman, the director of litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights. ‘We think it's an extreme law.’”

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