Judge: Alaska can't block qualified clinicians from providing medication abortions

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The ruling is a victory for abortion rights advocates, who are facing broad challenges nationswide.

Advocates for abortion access in Alaska are hoping to expand access to care as abortion rights face historic threats throughout the country. They just got a boost from a state court ruling that blocks the state from enforcing a law prohibiting nurse practitioners and other advanced nonphysician medical personnel from dispensing medication abortion drugs.

Outside the abortion setting, Alaska has some of the most expansive laws in the nation regarding nurse practitioners and other medical professionals, in part because the state struggles to attract enough doctors. They are allowed to practice without a physician's supervision and can be recognized as primary care providers. Within that role, they can prescribe drugs, including controlled substances such as methadone and fentanyl. 

The drugs used in medication abortions are extremely safe, and the prohibition against letting nurse practitioners prescribe them may be rooted in anti-abortion sentiments, not concerns about safety, medical experts say. 

Further, nurse practitioners and similar nonphysician medical practitioners in the state can already prescribe the drugs used in medication abortions — as long as they're prescribing them to a patient who is having a miscarriage, not a patient who wants an abortion.

In blocking the law, Alaska Superior Court Judge Josie Garton indicated that such a distinction might violate the equal protection rights of patients, saying, "It prevents people seeking abortions from receiving care from advanced practice clinicians that patients experiencing miscarriage may receive from the same providers."

Further, Judge Garton also held that Alaska's law likely violates the state's constitutional right to privacy by "significantly restricting" access to abortion without any real justification. 

At the federal level, the outlook for abortion cases has not been good, thanks to a Supreme Court that is solidly anti-abortion and will hear a to Roe v. Wade the case that established a constitutional right to abortion, in December. However, this lawsuit was brought in state court and alleges that the law violates the state and not the federal constitution. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Alaska constitution contains a specific right to privacy, and that distinction may prove critical. 

The Alaska judge's ruling only blocks the law while the matter proceeds through the state courts, and it only applies to medication abortions, which make up 24% of all abortions in the state. But for now, Alaskans have the choice to obtain medication abortion drugs from a wide variety of medical providers. 

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.