The main front in the abortion debate has pingponged from state to state since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, but the battleground for now can be found in the remote Texas Panhandle.
Abortion activists on both sides descended on the town of Amarillo for competing weekend rallies on a pivotal case before U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s 2000 approval of the abortion pill, now the most widely used form of pregnancy termination.
What worries pro-choice groups is that the lawsuit brought by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom sits before U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee whom the left accuses of judicial activism.
“Unelected judges should not be making decisions about lifesaving medications that we have access to based on their own extremist political agendas,” Women’s March Executive Director Rachel O’Leary Carmona said at a Saturday protest across from the federal courthouse in Amarillo.
She accused “a shady anti-abortion group” of venue shopping to bring the case before Judge Kacsmaryk.
“These extremists know that the vast majority of us support reproductive freedom, and they cannot achieve a nationwide ban by any democratic means, so they’re manipulating the judicial system in order to impose their will on us,” Ms. Carmona said.
Pro-life advocates call such arguments ironic, given that they spent nearly 50 years blasting the Supreme Court for leapfrogging the legislative process with its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide.
If anyone is guilty of short-circuiting democracy, it’s the Biden administration with its campaign to expand abortion access via executive fiat, said Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right to Life of East Texas.
“The Biden administration is the one that is attempting to spread abortion via the FDA instead of respecting the democratic process and letting laws be passed or repealed by the states or at the federal level,” Mr. Dickson said.
His organization and other pro-life groups showed the flag Saturday with an impromptu counterprotest at the federal courthouse in Amarillo an hour before the Women’s March held its “emergency mobilization.”
“It is because of the FDA’s unlawful actions that this lawsuit, filed by medical professionals, was necessary,” Mr. Dickson said. “Ever since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Biden administration has upped their game of ramrodding their radical abortion agenda with complete and utter disregard for the United States Constitution and the federal laws which they took an oath to defend.”
We pulled up on Amarillo to let the good ol’ boys network know we won’t let you abuse the courts to take away our rights. We see you. pic.twitter.com/rz7LHZYqhL
— Rachel O’Leary Carmona (@RachCarmona) February 11, 2023
Both sides won a reprieve last week when Judge Kacsmaryk moved the filing deadline in the case from Friday to Feb. 24 to accommodate a motion to intervene from Danco Laboratories, the pharmaceutical company that makes mifepristone.
The extension means a ruling could be issued as early as Feb. 24 in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. Food and Drug Administration. The case, filed in November, could overrule the FDA’s approval of mifepristone to terminate early pregnancies.
The implications for abortion laws are enormous, given that more than half of all U.S. pregnancy terminations are now conducted using the two-pill regimen of mifepristone, which blocks the hormone progesterone, and misoprostol, which induces contractions and expels the fetus.
Pro-choice advocates say the process is “safer than Tylenol,” while pro-life activists argue that the pills are four times more likely to cause complications than surgical abortions and the FDA rushed through its approval for political reasons.
“The FDA never studied the safety of the drugs under the labeled conditions of use, ignored the potential impacts of the hormone-blocking regimen on the developing bodies of adolescent girls, disregarded the substantial evidence that chemical abortion drugs cause more complications than surgical abortions, and eliminated necessary safeguards for pregnant girls and women who undergo this dangerous drug regimen,” the alliance said.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Pediatricians, the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, and Drs. Shaun Jester, Regina Frost-Clark, Tyler Johnson and George Delgado.
The FDA has eased limits on the pills over the years. In 2016, the agency raised the gestational age from seven to 10 weeks, reduced the number of in-person office visits from three to one, allowed medical professionals who aren’t doctors to prescribe the drugs, and eliminated the requirement to report nonfatal complications.
In 2021, the FDA made permanent pandemic-era rules allowing the pills to be dispensed via telemedicine and sent through the mail, setting up a challenge to federal and state laws banning the mailing of abortion drugs.
Republican and Democratic attorneys general jumped into the fray Friday with competing amicus briefs in the case.
New York Attorney General Letitia James led a brief signed by attorneys general from 21 states and the District of Columbia against the lawsuit, arguing that an order against the FDA rule would “drastically” reduce access to abortion with “devastating consequences for the residents of amici states.”
“Blocking access to this safe and effective medication is a dangerous attack on reproductive freedom and public health,” Ms. James said. “Decades of medical and clinical research have proven that medication abortion is safe. Despite these facts and its widespread use, we know this is not a debate about science. Access to safe reproductive healthcare could be in jeopardy for millions of Americans because of a baseless lawsuit.”
On the right, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch spearheaded 22 state attorneys general arguing that the FDA’s relaxed restrictions on abortion pills undermine state authority to protect public health and safety.
“The FDA’s brazen attempt to not only sidestep, but outright defy federal and state laws threatens both the health of women and democracy,” Ms. Fitch said.
Both sides have also mobilized the language. Pro-choice advocates refer to the pills as “medication abortion,” while pro-lifers call the process “chemical abortion.”
At the protests, Ms. Carmona warned of protests if Judge Kacsmaryk rules against the FDA. Any decision is virtually certain to be appealed by the losing side.
“The outcome that we’re anticipating represents an attack on democracy, on women, on America itself, and we will not stand for it,” Ms. Carmona said.
No matter what happens in federal court in Amarillo, Mr. Dickson said, the debate on abortion pills is far from over.
“This is a discussion that is happening throughout America, from Manhattan, Montana, to Rio Rancho, New Mexico, to Amarillo, Texas, and beyond,” he said. “This discussion is not going away anytime soon.”