A federal judge blocks some rules on abortion pills in North Carolina

Hammer (Photo: US Air Force)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal judge has permanently blocked a series of efforts in North Carolina to restrict how abortion pills can be dispensed, saying they unlawfully conflict with the authority of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But she allowed other state laws to remain in effect, giving a doctor who sued only a partial victory.

The order issued Monday by U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles in Greensboro solidifies her April 30 ruling that some of North Carolina’s regulations on medication abortion were left aside by decisions by federal drug regulators that determined they were not necessary goods.

Monday’s order means North Carolina cannot require only doctors to prescribe the pills; that the medicines are only provided personally to the patient; and that the patient schedule a follow-up appointment. It also prohibits state and local prosecutors, state health and medical officials, and other defendants from enforcing such rules or punishing people who fail to comply with them with criminal, civil, and professional penalties.

Congress delegated authority to the FDA to investigate the use of mifepristone, which the agency approved in 2000 to terminate a pregnancy, when used in combination with a second drug, misoprostol. The FDA expressly determined that restrictions similar to North Carolina’s were no longer necessary, based on evaluations of its safe distribution and use, Eagles wrote in April.

Her order appears to mean that patients in North Carolina can now get the pills through pharmacies — prescribed by someone like a nurse or physician assistant or via telehealth — and take them at home, in accordance with the FDA’s decisions.

But Eagles also retained some disputed restrictions, such as requiring an in-person consultation 72 hours in advance, an in-person examination and an ultrasound before obtaining a prescription. She said these rules have either not been expressly reviewed and rejected by the FDA, or focus more on the practice of medicine or the general health of patients.

Dr. Amy Bryant, who provides abortions and raised the legal challenge last year, said in a prepared statement that the permanent injunction “will enable greater access to safe and effective medication abortion care throughout North Carolina.”

The disputed regulations on medication abortion are codified in a 2023 law enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which continued or expanded many previous abortion restrictions. One change shortened the time frame for most abortions from after 20 weeks of pregnancy to 12 weeks.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the conservative North Carolina Values ​​Coalition, said Tuesday that the ruling “lowers the standard of care for women.” She also criticized the order for halting the state’s requirement that “nonfatal adverse events” linked to mifepristone be reported to the FDA, saying it would hide “dangerous complications and side effects of abortion medications.”

Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein, an abortion rights supporter who is now running for governor, did not defend the restrictions in court, having already argued they were undermined by the FDA’s decisions. He blamed Republican lawmakers Tuesday for the illegal provisions, saying, “This ruling helps women regain some control over their personal health care decisions.”

The offices of House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, who joined the case to defend the laws, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday. They could appeal Eagles’ order. An upcoming ruling in a separate U.S. Supreme Court case brought by anti-abortion doctors who want the justices to restrict access to mifepristone could affect the outcome of the North Carolina lawsuit.

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