Updated Apr 14, 2023 - Health

Supreme Court blocks lower court rulings restricting abortion pills

Picture of abortion rights and anti-abortion activists protesting outside of the Supreme Court building

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday temporarily blocked lower court orders that imposed restrictions on the widely used abortion pill mifepristone, keeping the status quo for the most common form of medication abortion while a legal challenge to the Food and Drug Administration's authority plays out.

Why it matters: The decision forestalled what would have been an unprecedented court-ordered rollback of FDA powers and at least temporarily settled a legal standoff arising from conflicting orders issued by separate federal courts on abortion pills.

The big picture: The U.S. District Court in Texas and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals orders reimposed restrictions on mifepristone that the FDA had gradually removed over the years.

  • But a Washington state federal court ruled that the FDA cannot roll back access to mifepristone in 17 states and the District of Columbia, in a case brought by Democratic state attorneys general.
  • The restrictions, set to take effect Saturday, would "upend the status quo based on the [Texas] court's deeply misguided assessment of mifepristone's safety," according to an appeal from the Department of Justice to the Supreme Court earlier Friday.
  • Danco Laboratories, the manufacturer of the brand name version of mifepristone, also filed an emergency application asking the high court to block the Texas and 5th Circuit orders, arguing that they have "created regulatory chaos across the country."

Details: Without issuing an opinion, Justice Samuel Alito ordered that the lower court rulings are stayed until next Wednesday, April 19.

  • Access to mifepristone for medication abortion will remain unchanged at least until then.
  • Alito also ordered the anti-abortion groups that originally brought the lawsuit to respond to the Justice Department's appeal by Tuesday.

What they're saying: "The entry of a brief administrative stay is standard operating procedure whenever the Supreme Court is asked to consider an emergency request like this one," said Erin Hawley, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents the anti-abortion groups in the case.

  • "It gives the court sufficient time to consider the parties’ arguments before ruling," Hawley said, adding that the group is looking forward to filing its response.

What we're watching: The order is not a final decision from the court and it is likely that another order will be issued at some point next week, after the anti-abortion groups' response is submitted.

Between the lines: Friday's ruling came less than a year after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, in a case during which justices argued that the high court did not have the authority to create national abortion policy.

  • Alito wrote in the opinion of the Dobbs case that overturned Roe that the court could not regulate abortion, adding that that power rested with the "people and their elected representatives."
  • Justice Brett Kavanaugh concurred, saying that the court did not "possess the constitutional authority [...] to decree either pro-life or pro-choice abortion policy for all 330 million people in the United States."

Go deeper: Listen to the Axios Today podcast, where host Niala Boodhoo and Oriana González discuss the Supreme Court’s ruling Friday that has temporarily blocked lower court rulings restricting the abortion pill.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

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