U.S. Capitol Building at Night

Is Preemption the Cure for Healthcare Federalism’s Restrictions on Medication Abortion?

This post is an adaptation of an article published in the Harvard Social Impact Review.

By Allison M. Whelan

On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overruling almost fifty years of precedent established by Roe v. Wade and reaffirmed by Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The tragic consequences of Dobbs are many, and all require urgent attention.

Post-Dobbs, states have complete control over the regulation of abortion, including medication abortion. Now more than ever, a person’s access to abortion and other essential reproductive health care services depends on their state of residence and whether they have the means to travel to a state that protects access to abortion care. As a result, the question of whether states can restrict or ban pharmaceuticals approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now top of mind for lawyers, scholars, policymakers, and the public

The consequences that result from state bans and restrictions on medication abortion reverberate across the U.S. healthcare system, representing just one example of “healthcare federalism” — the division of power between the federal and state governments in the regulation of health care.

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abortion protest outside supreme court.

Pregnancy Loss, Abortion Rights, and a Holistic Reproductive Justice Movement

The Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop provides a forum for discussion of new scholarship in these fields from the world’s leading experts. Though the Workshop is typically open to the public, it is not currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of our presenters will contribute blog posts summarizing their work, which we are happy to share here on Bill of Health.

By Greer Donley and Jill Wieber Lens

In the summer of 2020, celebrity Chrissy Teigen shared her son’s stillbirth with her tens of millions of followers on social media, including photos of her agony at her son’s simultaneous birth and death.

Teigen and her husband, John Legend, are noted supporters of abortion rights. After Jack’s death, Planned Parenthood tweeted its condolences: “We’re so sorry to hear that Chrissy Teigen and John Legend lost their son, and we admire them for sharing their story.”

Backlash was swift, accusing both Teigen and Planned Parenthood of hypocrisy, questioning how one could believe abortion involves only a “clump of cells,” yet grieve a pregnancy loss.

This anecdote perfectly highlights the perceived conflict between pregnancy loss and abortion rights — that any recognition of loss in the context of stillbirth or miscarriage could cause a slippery slope to fetal personhood.

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Abortion rights protest following the Supreme Court decision for Whole Women's Health in 2016

How Social Movements Have Facilitated Access to Abortion During the Pandemic

By Rachel Rebouché

Before the end of 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will reconsider its restrictions on medication abortion. The FDA’s decision could make a critical difference to the availability of medication abortion, especially if the Supreme Court abandons or continues to erode constitutional abortion rights.

Under that scenario of hostile judicial precedents, a broad movement for abortion access — including providers, researchers, advocates, and lawyers — will be immensely important to securing the availability of remote, early abortion care.

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Person typing on computer.

COVID-19 and the New Reproductive Justice Movement

By Mary Ziegler

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed advocacy for reproductive rights and reproductive justice in what previously had been called an endless, unchanging, and intractable abortion conflict.

The pandemic — and the stay-at-home orders it required — finally shifted the movement’s focus to abortion access, rather than abortion rights, as exemplified by its emphasis on medication and telehealth abortion.

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Rows of gold post office boxes with one open mail box.

FDA Expands Medication Abortion Access During Pandemic, but State Barriers Remain

By Adrienne R. Ghorashi, Esq.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suspended an in-person dispensing requirement for mifepristone for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing patients to access medication abortion by mail.

Previously, the FDA REMS requirement mandated that mifepristone must be dispensed in person, forcing patients to travel to a clinic in order to pick up the medication. In light of the pandemic, the requirement would lead to unnecessary risks of COVID exposure for patients and providers, in addition to imposing logistical and financial burdens.

This FDA decision is the latest development in a battle that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year. In its first abortion decision since Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the bench, the Supreme Court reinstated the in-person dispensing requirement after it had previously been blocked by a federal district court in Maryland due to the risks of COVID-19.

Advocates for abortion access are celebrating the FDA decision as a win for science and evidence-based policy rooted in a growing body of research on the benefits of medication abortion and telemedicine for abortion.

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Person typing on computer.

Substantial Obstacles after June Medical Services: ACOG v. FDA

By Rachel Rebouché

In June Medical Services v. Russo, the Supreme Court held that a Louisiana law requiring that physicians obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital was unconstitutional. Had the law taken effect, all but one provider would have lost the ability to deliver abortion care in the state. Despite the result, a number of commentators have expressed concern about the future of abortion rights. The source of their concerns is the Chief Justice’s application of the undue burden test—the standard for judging the constitutionality of an abortion restriction—established in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Justice Breyer, who wrote the judgment of the Court in June Medical Services, balanced the benefits and burdens conferred by the law, finding that the statute offered no benefit for people’s health and created significant burdens on the delivery of abortion. The admitting-privileges requirement does not protect patients’ safety because complications from abortion are rare and thus rarely will a patient need admission to a hospital. Moreover, admitting privileges, which the district court found each provider had pursued in good faith, do not determine a physician’s competency or credentials.

Although Chief Justice Roberts’s concurrence provided the fifth vote to strike down the law, Roberts wrote separately to emphasize that whether the Louisiana law had any identifiable benefit for patients was immaterial. The Court need only address what burdens the law imposed—if a law establishes “significant obstacles” to abortion. Roberts’s concurrence clearly departs from Breyer’s approach of weighing the law’s benefits against its burdens. Breyer’s formulation would render a law unconstitutional if it had no health benefits but erected a minimal obstacle to abortion care. Roberts’s approach would not: a law only fails the undue burden test—no matter how unsuccessful legislation is in achieving its purported goals—if the restriction renders abortion access substantially more difficult.

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