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News / Health / Health Wire

What the Supreme Court abortion pill case could mean for WA

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: March 27, 2024, 7:30am

SEATTLE — As the country parsed U.S. Supreme Court justices’ questions in a case that could restrict access to abortion pills, local Planned Parenthood leaders and Democratic elected officials said Washington has a lot at stake.

While the state has many protections for abortion access, a ruling for plaintiffs trying to limit distribution of the drug mifepristone would be dire for Washingtonians, said state Attorney General Bob Ferguson at a roundtable and news conference held Tuesday at the Central District office of the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate.

“There is no way to sugarcoat that,” Ferguson said.

Among those affected would be an increasing number of patients coming to Washington from states where abortion is banned, including neighboring Idaho and states in the South.

If the ruling restores a requirement for patients to visit a doctor three times to gain access to mifepristone, those from out of town might have to stay in Washington for as long as a week, said Rebecca Gibron, CEO of the Planned Parenthood affiliate. That would likely drive up costs for patients, especially those who don’t have health insurance covering abortion because the procedure is illegal in their home states, added state Sen. Emily Randall, of Bremerton.

Still, Washington might find a way around at least one regulation, if reinstated, which would restrict mifepristone’s use to up to seven weeks of pregnancy, instead of 10 as currently allowed. Ferguson said his legal team is looking into whether local providers could make use of 40,000 mifepristone pills the state has stockpiled to continue dispensing the medication up until the 10-week point.

“My team’s initial feeling is that may be entirely possible,” Ferguson said. Asked about the legal reasoning, he said he’d have to check with his team, and a spokesperson later said the Attorney General’s Office isn’t comfortable discussing the matter at this point.

Medical providers generally have considerable discretion in how they prescribe medication, and disciplinary matters rest with state agencies, not the Food and Drug Administration, noted Drexel University law professor David Cohen in a separate interview.

The Supreme Court’s ruling may make the issue moot and leave the status quo in place, if their questions Tuesday are any guide. In that case, Ferguson said Washington will press ahead with a lawsuit arguing the FDA’s current mifepristone regulations are actually too strict, rather than the opposite.

Sixteen other states, plus the District of Columbia, have joined Washington in seeking to relax the regulations, including a requirement that pharmacies be specially certified to distribute mifepristone. The case is being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.