Vassar students react to potential ban of mifepristone

Karen Mogami/The Miscellany News.

On April 7, 2023, Texas U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled to suspend the FDA’s nearly 23-year approval of the medical abortion pill mifepristone. The judge sided with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group, supporting its claim that the drug is unsafe for consumption and was too hastily greenlit by the FDA. Texas then issued an injunction to block the FDA’s approval of mifepristone in one week. The ruling, which could drastically impact access to medical abortions across the country, drew uproar among pro-choice advocates and incited fear among abortion providers across America, according to a report by NPR

Mifeprex (generically referred to as mifepristone) was approved by the FDA in 2000 after conclusions that the drug was effective in terminating pregnancy and safe to use. In 2007, the FDA re-validated the approval of Mifeprex under the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS). REMS sets the requirements necessary to safely prescribe the drug, namely that the pill may be taken to terminate a pregnancy through 10 weeks of gestation. Mifeprex’s REMS has since been amended several times, such as in 2019 to create a shared REMS for all Mifeprex products (including generic Mifepristone Tablets) and again in January 2023 to tighten safety regulations and approve sale by certified pharmacies, according to the FDA. 

Almost immediately after the initial decision, U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice of Washington State issued a separate ruling to block Judge Kacsmaryk’s suspension, ordering the FDA to keep the drug on the market. Washington’s verdict made it possible for the temporary continued use of mifepristone in 17 states and Washington D.C. until the Texas decision was to take effect one week after the initial ruling.

These conflicting cases paved the way for Supreme Court intervention. CNBC reported that on Friday, April 14, the Supreme Court decided to temporarily uphold the FDA’s ruling, protecting the abortion drug. The order, signed by Justice Samuel Alito, calls for the lower court’s rulings to be placed on hold until this Wednesday, April 19, at 11:59 p.m. Alito, who handles emergency filings from Texas, announced his decision mere hours before Kacsmaryk’s suspension was set to take effect. However, this temporary save should not be cause for celebration. According to NPR, Alito was part of the majority ruling in overturning Roe v. Wade last summer, writing a 78-page opinion stating Roe’s arguments were weak. The Supreme Court currently holds a 6-3 conservative majority, meaning that when it decides whether to maintain broad availability of mifepristone, the court will likely vote in favor of limiting access.

With these rulings and the overwhelmingly conservative opinion of the Supreme Court, there is a feeling of great uncertainty among many abortion activists and left-leaning states. Several states have announced they are beginning to stockpile another abortion pill, misoprostol. Typically taken in tandem with mifepristone, misoprostol is significantly less effective when taken on its own, Planned Parenthood explains. However, with little options left, many are turning to the lesser pill for hope. According to NPR, in New York, Governor Kathy Hochul announced last week that the state is purchasing a five-year supply of misoprostol, approximately 150,000 pills. And California has announced plans to acquire an emergency supply of nearly two million doses.

So, what does all this mean? Well, for now, mifepristone is still available for use and is the safest and most effective medical abortion pill. Restrictions rule that the pill is available from certified physicians by prescription-only in most U.S. states (including New York). According to the CDC, more than 50 percent of abortions are medical, as opposed to surgical. This means that half of all abortions require the use of mifepristone. Of course, there are alternative ways to terminate a pregnancy, but few are as safe and non-invasive as the pill. Ultimately, this legal battle could limit availability of the medication, even where abortion remains legal in the U.S.

Vassar Voices for Planned Parenthood (VVPP) president Hannah Oppenheim ’23 discussed the ways students at Vassar have been fighting for abortion rights. “Last week, we tabled with Baldwin’s gynecologist and gender-affirming services provider to educate students about this battle,” said Oppenheim. “We also provided individuals with resources to take action, including petitions to demand the reversal of the ban and the impeachment of Judge Kacsmaryk.” Oppenheim noted that drug manufacturers advised the Supreme Court not to second-guess the FDA’s knowledge and expertise in approving mifepristone over 20 years ago. “VVPP urges students to research this issue further and join us in this fight.

VVPP members Louisa Gear ’25 and Talia Yustein ’26 have some ideas on what students can do to help. “Right now, VVPP is really focused on getting people the most updated information about what’s going on nationally and what’s available in our area and on our campus,” said Gear. Last week, the organization tabled in the College Center with information on mifepristone, even providing specific action items such as links to petitions for students to sign. Getting the word out is essential. “Most of the people who came over to our table had either not heard about the case and ban or seemed ambivalent,” says Yustein. “I think most people on campus support the right to have an abortion by pill, but there aren’t a lot of widespread conversations happening.” So, what can a Vassar student do to help? Yustein believes: “Staying informed and, as tired as it sounds, donating to Planned Parenthood, signing petitions, and holding elected officials accountable can be, in my opinion, some of the best ways to fight back against these kinds of anti-abortion measures.”

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