Supreme Court just showed how willing it is to put women in danger


People who want a medication abortion will once again have to go in person — during a pandemic.

Earlier this week, the conservative 6-3 majority at the Supreme Court ruled that patients must go in person to pick up mifepristone, the drug used in medication abortions. It's the latest in a long line of actions by conservative judges and legislators to make access to abortion both more difficult and more dangerous.

In August 2020, physician groups including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, alongside the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, sued the Food and Drug Administration. The lawsuit sought to suspend the FDA's in-person pickup requirement for mifepristone until the coronavirus pandemic was over. 

Lower courts agreed and suspended the rule, but the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court, which held on Tuesday, in a brief unsigned order, that people should be forced to go to a doctor's office during a pandemic simply to pick up some medication. That's although mifepristone is exceptionally safe, while an additional trip to a hospital or clinic during a pandemic is less than safe for many.

Concurring with the unsigned order, Chief Justice John Roberts framed his stance as one of deference to "politically accountable entities" with the "background, competence, and expertise to assess public health." However, those public health experts at the FDA were comfortable relaxing in-person pickup restrictions during the pandemic on several other drugs, including powerful opioids. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her dissent that the federal government has explicitly urged the use of telemedicine when possible, to slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

Sotomayor wrote that the majority's decision actively endangers people who need abortions, particularly people living in poverty and people of color. She pointed out that Black and Hispanic individuals are three times more likely than white people to die from the virus and three-fourths of people who seek abortions have low incomes. 

The latter was especially problematic to Sotomayor, who noted that people with low incomes are more likely to need to use public transportation to get to a clinic, creating an additional possibility of exposure to the virus. Finally, as the Centers for Disease Control has explained, pregnant people face an increased risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19. 

Public health officials agree that the safest course of action is to make sure people can minimize their exposure to the deadly virus when seeking to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to an abortion. But many court holdings and laws explicitly place people seeking an abortion at risk. 

For example, at least 11 states have tried to force doctors to tell their patients that medication abortion is reversible. No reputable studies support this view. When researchers sought to formally investigate the possibility, they had to stop right away because the methods pushed by anti-abortion advocates were so unsafe that people were hospitalized with dangerous hemorrhaging. This isn't just junk science — it's potentially deadly. 

Ohio GOP legislators engaged in similar deadly thinking when they tried to enshrine an imaginary medical procedure into law. GOP members of the Ohio House proposed a bill where people with an ectopic pregnancy, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when a fertilized egg accidentally implants outside the uterus, would be required to have surgery to "re-implant" the egg rather than having an abortion. The problem with that plan is that no such procedure exists, and leaving ectopic pregnancies untreated can be deadly.

There are also laws on the books in several states requiring minors to inform their parent that they are seeking an abortion. Many minors, though, are in family situations where telling their parents could be dangerous. Eight percent of teenagers in one study feared they would be physically harmed if they told their parents about an abortion because their parents had previously beaten them. Twenty-two percent were afraid they would be kicked out of their home if they told their parents. 

Finally, recall that merely going to a clinic that performs abortions often requires patients to run a gauntlet of protesters, some of whom are screaming and who are allowed to follow people right to the door of the clinic. An attempt, in Massachusetts, to create a permanent "buffer zone" where protestors couldn't approach patients within 35 feet of a clinic was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2014. 

Now, the Supreme Court's latest decision ensures, once again, that people who need abortions will need to put their own safety at risk in order to get one.