Federal Judge Rules to Keep Access to Abortion Drug Mifepristone in 17 States, DC

Federal Judge Rules to Keep Access to Abortion Drug Mifepristone in 17 States, DC
A person looks at an Abortion Pill (RU-486) for unintended pregnancy from Mifepristone displayed on a smartphone, in Arlington, Va., on May 8, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)
Mimi Nguyen Ly

A federal Obama-appointed judge ruled to maintain access to abortion pills in 17 states and Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

The ruling would not be impacted by other orders issued in other federal courts, said the judge, Thomas Rice of the U.S. Eastern District of Washington.

His ruling is a clarification and reiteration of a ruling he issued last Friday, when he ordered the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to preserve access to mifepristone in the 17 states and Washington, D.C.—jurisdictions all led by Democrats.

The 17 states are Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington. The states and Washington, D.C., had sued the Biden administration’s FDA and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to maintain their access to mifepristone.

Rice’s decision last Friday, April 7, had come within 20 minutes of a decision by U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee in Amarillo, Texas, who in a separate case ordered the FDA to temporarily halt its approval of mifepristone for the entire nation.
The Biden administration on Monday asked for clarification in light of the competing rulings, and filed a motion to expedite consideration of the clarification request, because Kacsmaryk’s ruling is set to take effect on April 14.
“Defendants seek clarification regarding their obligations in light of a potentially contradictory order out of the Northern District of Texas. That order is currently stayed and was not in effect at the time of this Court’s preliminary injunction,” Rice wrote in his order Thursday (pdf).

“Under these circumstances, because the Court has jurisdiction over the parties before it and limited its preliminary injunction only to the Plaintiff States and the District of Columbia, this Court’s preliminary injunction was effective as of April 7, 2023 and must be followed by Defendants.”

Mifepristone is used for a medication abortion, also referred to as chemical abortion, a process designed to kill an unborn child in pregnancies up to 10 weeks. It is also sometimes used for women who have miscarriages. It is part of a two-drug regimen: mifepristone blocks progesterone, thereby depriving the unborn child of nutrients needed to stay alive, and stops the pregnancy from progressing, while a second drug, misoprostol, induces labor to expel the unborn child.

In the other legal case, following Kacsmaryk’s ruling to halt its approval of mifepristone, a federal appeals court partially overturned his order late Wednesday, April 12.

Specifically, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that mifepristone will remain available nationwide while the case plays out, but with more restrictions, including requiring the woman to make multiple in-person visits to the doctor before she can obtain the abortion pill.

According to Rice’s order, the Fifth Circuit’s ruling will not affect access to mifepristone in the 17 states and Washington, D.C.