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Judge waives requirement for in-person visit to get abortion pill during pandemic

The Hill logo The Hill 7/13/2020 Justine Coleman
a close up of a wooden table: kentucky man quarantine force isolation home governor andy beshear © iStock kentucky man quarantine force isolation home governor andy beshear

A federal judge on Monday waived the requirement for an in-person visit to a hospital, clinic or medical office to get an abortion pill during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang, an Obama appointee, ruled that "in-person requirements" for those seeking an abortion and the drug mifepristone are a "substantial obstacle" and unconstitutional amid the ongoing health crisis.

"By causing certain patients to decide between forgoing or substantially delaying abortion care, or risking exposure to COVID-19 for themselves, their children, and family members, the In-Person Requirements present a serious burden to many abortion patients," Chuang wrote in the ruling obtained by The Associated Press.

Under the ruling, health care providers will be permitted to mail or deliver mifepristone to patients as long as the Department of Health and Human Services's (HHS) public health emergency continues. HHS Secretary Alex Azar first declared the emergency in January.

Eva Chalas, the president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, called the Monday ruling a "victory" in a statement.

"Today's ruling represents a victory for patients, who should not have to face the additional burden of increased COVID-19 exposure as a condition of receiving their prescribed mifepristone," she said.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List, released a statement saying the group was "extremely disappointed" and calling the requirements "necessary to protect women from serious and potentially life-threatening complications."

"Abortion activists exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to push their long-sought goal of expanding dangerous chemical abortion drugs have proven over and over that they will prioritize profits at the expense of health and safety," she said.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved of mifepristone being used along with misoprostol to terminate a pregnancy or manage a miscarriage.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, along with other groups, sued HHS and the FDA over the in-person rule earlier this year, saying it violated the constitutional right to an abortion and the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represented the plaintiffs.

Government attorneys said the in-person visits were necessary to maintain patient safety when using the drug, as the FDA requires patients to sign a form about potential risks.

HHS and the FDA did not immediately return requests for comment.

Chuang had accepted the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction, saying the federal government has waived in-person mandates for other drugs during the pandemic "for the specific purpose of protecting public health."

Indiana, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma attempted to intervene in the lawsuit, arguing the ruling could impact enforcement of their state laws. But Chuang said the case would not forbid a state from regulating abortion medication "above and beyond" the FDA's rules.

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