The abortion debate has changed dramatically in the seven months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and its nationwide right to abortion. Nearly half the states have banned or restricted the procedure, even though the public, at the ballot box, continues to show support for abortion rights.
In this special two-part podcast, taped the week of the 50th anniversary of the Roe decision, an expert panel delves into the fight, the sometimes-unintended side effects, and what each side plans for 2023.
This week’s panelists are Julie Rovner of KHN, Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico, Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call, and Sarah Varney of KHN.
Among the takeaways from this week’s episode:
- Exemptions to state abortion bans came into question shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, with national debate surrounding the case of a 10-year-old in Ohio who was forced to travel out of state to have an abortion — although, as a rape victim, she should have been able to obtain an abortion in her home state.
- The restrictions in many states have caused problems for women experiencing miscarriages, as medical providers fear repercussions of providing care — whether affecting their medical licenses or malpractice insurance coverage, or even drawing criminal charges. So far, there have been no reports of doctors being charged.
- A Christian father in Texas won a lawsuit against the federal government that bars the state’s Title X family-planning clinics from dispensing birth control to minors without parental consent. That change poses a particular problem for rural areas, where there may not be another place to obtain contraception, and other states could follow suit. The Title X program has long required clinics to serve minors without informing their parents.
- Top abortion opponents are leaning on misinformation to advance their causes, including to inaccurately claim that birth control is dangerous.
- Medication abortion is the next target for abortion opponents. In recent months, the FDA has substantially loosened restrictions on the “abortion pill,” though only in the states where abortion remains available. Some opponents are getting creative by citing environmental laws to argue, without evidence, that the abortion pill could contaminate the water supply.
- Restrictions are also creating problems for the maternal care workforce, with implications possibly rippling for decades to come. Some of the states with the worst maternal health outcomes also have abortion bans, leading providers to rethink how, and where, they train and practice.
- Looking ahead, a tug of war is occurring on state and local levels among abortion opponents about what to do next. Some lawmakers who voted for state bans are expressing interest in at least a partial rollback, while other opponents are pushing back to demand no changes to the bans. With Congress divided, decisions about federal government spending could draw the most attention for those looking for national policy changes.
Also this week, Rovner interviews Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state reproductive health policies for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research group.
KHN’s ‘What the Health?’
Episode Title: Part I: The State of the Abortion Debate 50 Years After ‘Roe’
Episode Number: 281
Published: Jan. 26, 2023
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Julie Rovner: Hi! This is Julie Rovner from KHN’s “What the Health?” We’re doing a special episode this week trying to summarize the state of the abortion debate in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade. We have the very best group of experts and reporters I could think of. And the conversation was so good and so long that for the first time we’re breaking it into two parts. So here’s Part I.
Today we are joined via video conference by Alice Miranda Ollstein of Politico.
Alice Miranda Ollstein: Good morning.
Rovner: Sandhya Raman of CQ Roll Call.
Sandhya Raman: Good morning.
Rovner: And my KHN colleague Sarah Varney.
Sarah Varney: Hey.
Rovner: We will actually get to our panel a little bit later. That’s because on this special episode of “What the Health?” we’re taking a deep dive into the state of abortion access on the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We’re going to get our bearings first by hearing from Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research group. As you’ll hear, Elizabeth is a walking encyclopedia of state abortion rules and regulations. So here’s the interview, and then we’ll be back for our group discussion.
I am pleased to welcome to the podcast Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state legislative activity on reproductive health issues for the Guttmacher Institute. Elizabeth knows more than probably any other single person about the state of abortion laws and how they’ve changed over time and has been an invaluable resource for me over the many years I have covered this issue. I could think of no one better to kick off our special episode on the state of abortion rights in 2023. Elizabeth, welcome to “What the Health?”
Elizabeth Nash: Thank you. That is the most flattering introduction, and I am glad I have been able to help.
Rovner: Well, I can honestly say that I’ve given up on trying to keep track of where abortion is legal, illegal, or somehow restricted since Roe was overturned last June. Is it safe to say this is the most rapid change in state rules since you’ve been tracking this?
Nash: Yes, to put a point on that, I started tracking 1999. So I do have some sense of the longevity of what we’re talking about. And going back even further, the rules weren’t changing all that quickly in 1973 or ’5. I mean, they were changing somewhat quickly. But when we look at what is happening right now, it really is a sea change, right? We have a quarter of the states — so there are 14 states — where abortion is unavailable, right? In 12 of those states, that’s due to abortion bans. In two other states,it’s because of other things that have happened. And so you’re looking at, already, the South, the Plains, the Midwest … abortion access has been extremely difficult to come by. And then we’re seeing what’s happening in the progressive states, at the same time, to expand access. So it’s been on both ends of the spectrum, right? Expanding and restricting. And it literally is all over the map.
Rovner: Is there any way to divide them into categories that make it easier to track? I know in some states … we all know about these six states where there were voter ballot measures. Some of them have been legislative issues and some of them are stuck in court on both sides, right?
Nash: Oh, yes, absolutely. So beyond these 14 states where abortion is unavailable … so you’re really thinking about the Texases, Louisianas, Mississippis, Arkansas, Oklahomas of the world. There’s another group of states where there are abortion bans that were enacted before the Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization] ruling and now are tied up in court. And we’re thinking about states like Utah, Wyoming, also Indiana, even though that one happened after the Dobbs ruling. They came into special session and passed an abortion ban and now it’s tied up in the courts. But we have a lot of pieces that are moving through the court system. And what is different now than before the Dobbs ruling in June is that most of these cases are in state court. And so we’re now having to rely on state constitutions to protect abortion rights. And in many of these states, the state constitutions haven’t been evaluated and tested in this way. So this is a whole brand-new batch, essentially, of court cases about what do we expect? What are the kinds of clauses that are being used to support abortion rights and to hopefully strike down these abortion bans?
Rovner: I know for years, even decades, anti-abortion groups were united in their desire to see Roe overturned. Now that it has been, are you surprised with how much farther some are trying to get states to go beyond just straight abortion bans?
Nash: You know, I think Dobbs came down and those … activists and advocates in the movement said they’re not going to stop here. And they haven’t, right? So the general public thought, oh, maybe this is settled. And those in the movement said, no, wait, this is one more step in the journey. Also, yes, we are seeing more efforts even in these states that have abortion bans that aren’t even implemented looking to pass more restrictions. And you’re like, what could they possibly do? Well, there’s been a real focus by abortion opponents on medication abortion. Because they know people are accessing medication abortion online, they want … abortion opponents want to try to hem that in and stop that from happening. So more restrictions on medication abortion, even potentially legislation that would prevent access to websites that have information about abortion on them. So looking at a range of types of policies around medication abortion, also seeing some more restrictions potentially that could prevent abortion funds and support organizations from doing their good work. ’Cause one of the conversations after the Dobbs ruling in June was, well, if people leave the state to access abortion, could we ban them from travel? Well, we probably won’t see a lot of legislation that specifically bans people from leaving the state for an abortion. But we will see some legislation around trying to give them fewer options, such as making it harder for abortion funds and practical support organizations to fulfill their mission or legislation that prevents businesses from supporting their employees to go to another state and access abortion.
Rovner: I was struck by a piece you wrote last month on exceptions to abortion bans, particularly for rape or incest or the life or health of the pregnant woman. I am old enough to remember the early 1990s when Congress spent several years debating whether to add back rape and incest exceptions to the federal “Hyde Amendment.” They had been there originally. They were dropped out in the 1980s and then there was a huge fight over getting them back. But you point out that for all the effort on the issue, these exceptions don’t actually mean very much. Why is that?
Nash: Well, to put it in a few words, abortion opponents see exceptions as loopholes, and they’re trying to narrow those so-called loopholes so that it’s impossible to access care. So I think the public generally had this sense that, oh, there must be exceptions if someone’s health is at risk, or their life is in danger and perhaps some other situations, right? So that just general understanding the public might have. Well, in fact, one, those kinds of health exceptions just really never existed at all. And the fight really was what you’re talking about, around rape and incest, maybe a genetic anomaly of the fetus. And on top of that, when they were added, they really are these incredibly narrowly worded exceptions that make it impossible for someone to get an abortion under them. A lot of times people would be required to report to the legal authorities. Well, that could be very traumatizing for a sexual assault survivor. They may not be there emotionally. They may be expecting additional blowback from the authorities. Unfortunately, that has been part of the history, right? And so, having to relive all of that is a problem. So really, these exceptions are basically meaningless. And yet we’re expecting to see fights over them in 2023. And particularly in some of these states where we’ve seen abortion bans. Tennessee is one example where there’s an abortion ban in effect and basically there is no access to abortion, in part because there’s a provision of that ban that says that the provider has to give out an affirmative defense if they provide an abortion. And, basically, that means that there will be no abortions provided in Tennessee.
Rovner: Because if you provide one, you’ll still end up in court, even if it’s legitimate.
Nash: Yes, you’ll end up in court. It’s a huge expense. And if you lose, you’ll have all of these penalties and, potentially, loss of license … there’s a lot at stake. And so in Tennessee, there is a potential of a debate around exceptions. And again, I think this is about abortion opponents trying to make their bans look less bad. Right? This is about, oh, well, we’ll add in some exceptions. People will think we’re doing something and, in effect, it means nothing. So really, where we need to start moving towards — and, of course, advocates are moving towards this — it’s more about how do you bring along the public and others who need to roll back abortion bans? They don’t serve any public health good.
Rovner: There seems to be this growing — I won’t even call it a rift yet, but a separation between a lot of Republicans who’ve traditionally voted for abortion bans because they knew they weren’t going to go into effect. So it looked good. And they have that section of their base that they make happy. Well, now that we’re shooting with real bullets, if you will, some of those Republicans seem to be getting a little antsy about some of the bans, particularly when they’re hearing about doctors who are afraid to provide not just abortion care, but sometimes routine or emergency care for women with problem pregnancies.
Nash: Yeah, it’s very true. And yes, Republicans in these states, particularly conservative states, are in a bit of a pickle. They’re trying to placate their base that has been arguing for abortion bans without any exceptions. And now they see their opportunity with the fall of Roe. And then you have the public, the much larger public that supports abortion access and, in fact, is getting more supportive of abortion access because the rubber has hit the road. We are seeing the impact of abortion bans, and it is around abortion access. It is also around what you’re seeing in maternal health care. And also in these conservative states, we’re seeing a conversation among providers that is, Do I stay in this state? Can I remain here knowing that I cannot provide all the care my patients need and deserve?
Rovner: That’s the big irony, is that banning abortion could end up having fewer rather than more pregnancies, because I know a lot of women who are afraid to get pregnant lest they have complications that they won’t be able to get treated.
Nash: Yeah, absolutely. And if patients are feeling supported and know that they can get the care that they need, then that can change the whole trajectory, at least for a few years of their life. Because people may decide, OK, I’m going to delay my childbearing until I feel comfortable and in a situation where I feel that my health will be taken care of.
Rovner: Well, I think there will be a lot more for you to follow this year and in the next couple of years. You’re going to have to make your spreadsheet bigger. I look forward to continuing to do this. Elizabeth Nash, thank you for your work, and thank you again for joining us.
Nash: Thank you so much for having me. It was a real treat to talk to you. I followed your work for forever.
Rovner: We will definitely have you back.
OK. We are back with Alice [Miranda] Ollstein, Sandhya Raman, and Sarah Varney. I’ve tried to order this discussion by topic, and while we won’t get to everything, I hope we’ll at least get a good idea of the landscape since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June. I want to start by talking about some of the immediate or almost immediate effects of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on June 24. Abortion rights advocates had been arguing for years, in some cases decades, about some of the things that might happen if Roe was overturned. Mostly, they were told the equivalent of “Don’t worry your pretty little heads over those things; they won’t happen.” But in fact, a lot of them did, starting almost immediately with the case of a 10-year-old in Ohio who was raped and had to go to Indiana to end the resulting pregnancy. Abortion opponents first claimed it was made up. Then when it was proved true, the Indiana attorney general went after the doctor who treated the child. This whole fight is still actually going on, isn’t it? Alice, I see you nodding.
Ollstein: Yes. So there are not criminal charges against this doctor or, that we know of, any doctor yet. You know, that was one feared thing that has not materialized, mainly because doctors have proven very cautious and unwilling to even do anything that could be seen as violating these state bans. So what’s at issue in the Indiana case is around the medical licensing — so not criminal charges. But still it’s very intimidating for the doctor. Her name was dragged all over the news and she got lots of threats, etc. And I think what really jumped out most for me from that case is, theoretically, the child should have been able to get an abortion in Ohio under these purported exemptions to the state’s ban. And yet both the child and her caretakers thought it was necessary to go out of state. And that really shows how these exemptions may exist on paper but are really difficult and, in some cases, impossible to use in practice.
Varney: And the other thing that that case I think shows was that the response from those who oppose abortion was sort of immediate, that this did not happen. This was made up. We saw Jim Jordan come out with some tweets essentially saying this was just a hoax. And then when they actually found this 27-year-old man and they DNA-tested him and they arrested him, there’s been crickets actually from that side. And I think that also indicated to us what we’ve been seeing now over the last couple of months. What I heard on Friday at the March for Life in Washington and again at the National Pro-Life Summit as well in Washington, just this absolute denial, really, that all of these things are happening. I brought specific cases to people that I interviewed, both the soldiers on the ground to leaders of the movement, to say, “Here’s what’s happening in Louisiana, this particular case in Texas.” And 2-to-1, they said, “This is not happening. This is made up. These physicians are just doing this because they want to send a message.” And then when you interview obstetricians and gynecologists who are opposed to abortion rights, they too say that, “Oh, this is all just made up, that the exceptions are very clear. We know what to do to save a woman’s life.” So I think this is a whole other front … this sort of misinformation campaign about the actual impact on the ground of these abortion bans.
Rovner: Yeah. And to follow up on that, I mean, another thing that was predicted is that the lives and health of pregnant women who were not seeking abortions but who experienced pregnancy complications could be negatively affected. And that is definitely happening, right? These are among the things that the anti-abortion movement says are not happening. But we’ve now seen story after story of women, particularly, whose water breaks too early for even premature infants to survive and who end up basically being stuck in this limbo because their doctor is worried about violating the law, but also worried about keeping the woman alive.
Raman: There are a number of doctors who’ve spoken up about some of the risks that they felt firsthand of defying some of these state bans, even when it’s a serious health or emergency risk or having to go through hospital lawyers before they can act. And I think there’ve been a lot of cases, especially in Missouri and Texas, and I think the Texas Medical Association last year even appealed to the state medical board because of the difficulty they had in treating some of these serious health issues for pregnant individuals because of the risk … that it just kind of creates this layered effect where, on one hand, some of these state laws don’t even exactly lay out what is an emergency, what isn’t an emergency, how do you define imminent death, how mental health fits in? Even though that can be, as we know, a serious health risk as well. And it just — a number of layers to figuring out an already tricky situation when dealing with an emergency health situation should be pretty straightforward.
Rovner: And yet …
Varney: And it’s interesting, too, I also posed this exact question to marchers on Friday. And 2-to-1 they said, “Well, first of all, we don’t really understand pregnancy. We don’t understand fetal development. We certainly don’t understand fetal demise. We’re … none of us are doctors.” None of the people out there, most of them at least, were not doctors. But, you know, saying very specifically, that case in Louisiana that KHN and NPR reported about a woman who was … she had a 4-year-old. She wanted to be pregnant. She started hemorrhaging, was obviously miscarrying. She went to a hospital. She was turned away. She was bleeding profusely, in intense pain, went back to a second hospital, also turned away because they could still detect a faint fetal activity, fetal cardiac activity. And so when I posed this really specific question to some of the people at the march, they said, “Well, this is what God wants. God wants her to return to her home and let this baby die, or she should birth this baby and then bury it.” This sort of disconnect between what’s happening to a person who’s miscarrying and their religious beliefs about what should happen are completely far apart.
Ollstein: Yeah, what’s really come to the fore is that the treatment for a miscarriage or a pregnancy complication and an abortion medically are the same in so many cases. It’s the same drugs you take. It’s the same procedure to empty the uterus. And so restrictions on one will inevitably impact the other. And that’s what we’re really hearing from doctors who, again, because of the chilling effect created by these laws, are afraid to do things that would risk them getting charged, risk them losing their licenses, you know, issues with malpractice insurance. And so they are really erring on the side of not providing this care in a lot of circumstances.
Rovner: And sometimes there are women who are not even pregnant getting caught up in this. In Alabama, a woman was jailed for using illegal drugs that threatened her unborn child, except she’s now suing for false imprisonment because she was not pregnant. Some states are basically criminalizing every stage of pregnancy, right?
Ollstein: This has been an issue since before Dobbs, for sure. I mean, and it’s not just red states. In California, two women were incarcerated for taking drugs and having pregnancy loss. And so I think this has been exacerbated by the fall of Roe v. Wade and this new aggressive era with the anti-abortion officials becoming emboldened. But it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen this happen.
Rovner: And Sarah, you were talking about Alabama, in particular?
Varney: Alabama has sort of perfected this. Steve Marshall, who’s their current attorney general, was a local prosecutor in a county that essentially came up with this notion that you could extend these chemical endangerment laws to pregnant women. There was a woman who was in prison for 10 years after she used drugs during her pregnancy and had a stillbirth. And it’s hard to say that these kinds of laws are helping these women or helping them with their addiction issues. And I think the thing that I’m really on the lookout for — and we’re all national reporters, but I’m sure, like many of you, I travel to these states — I think what’s difficult is that in a place like Alabama, this is really now up to local prosecutors. So, as we saw, that was a case where a family member called the police and reported this woman saying that she was using drugs and that she was pregnant. Now, did this family member actually know she was pregnant or not, or was she just trying to seek some sort of revenge? I have no idea. But you’re right. She was then jailed and then kept saying, “Give me a pregnancy test, I’ll take it!” And then, sure enough, she, of course, wasn’t pregnant. But, you know, it’s up to individual prosecutors in Idaho, in Alabama, in Texas. They can sort of do what they want now, and especially in these states that have fetal rights written into their constitutions. This is really the next front.
Rovner: Well, and of course, the biggest thing of all that we were told — insisted it was not going to happen — anti-abortion activists said they never intended nor wanted to limit birth control. But that really is starting to happen, isn’t it?
Raman: I mean, we could even see this last year. The House did their vote on a bill to codify contraception, and it did not get much bipartisan support. And of the eight Republicans then that voted for it, five of them are no longer in office. One of them, in particular, that is there of the three, Nancy Mace of South Carolina, spoke a lot when we had the recent abortion votes in the House about how she wanted there to be votes on things like birth control first, before they went to look at abortion. But it seems like there’s not as much an appetite among Republican lawmakers federally to do that right now.
Rovner: Yeah, I think Nancy Mace is trying to be the Lisa Murkowski of the House, trying to have it all ways.
Varney: I’m actually about to go to Texas to do a story for the NewsHour about this Title X lawsuit. So this was a father, you guys probably heard about this, but this is a Christian father of three daughters who sued to say — his lawyer is Jonathan Mitchell, who was the lawyer for the S.B. 8 case and is involved in a lot of anti-abortion conservative causes. And …
Rovner: S.B. 8, for those who don’t remember, it’s the Texas law that was in effect before Roe was overturned, that basically — the bounty to turn in somebody you think has something to do with abortion, and you can win money!
Varney: Correct. And was clearly in violation of Roe but was allowed to stand. Well, so, this lawyer, on behalf of this father and his children, has sued the federal government to the same federal judge that S.B. 8 went through. And they won. So now in Texas, if you are a minor, you cannot go into Title X clinics for the first time since the Nixon administration and get birth control. And if you live in a rural area like Amarillo, you really don’t have any other options. And of course, there’s lots of evidence that shows why parental consent actually is harmful when it comes to reproductive health, particularly for girls. So now we’re going to be shooting that story. But I think there’s a lot of concern among the Title X administrators in the different states where abortion is banned, and there are these very active anti-abortion groups, that they will essentially extend this Title X ruling to their other states without even having to go to the courts. They’ll just say, well, they did it in Texas, so we can now do it in Alabama.
Rovner: And funny, there was a giant fight about exactly this in the Reagan administration, which was before I started covering this. But I read about it. It was called the “Squeal Rule.” It was an effort to actually require parental involvement in girls getting birth control from Title X clinics. And it was struck down by a federal judge. Basically, it has been doctrine ever since, and law, that teens are allowed to go seek care from Title X clinics and they don’t have to tell their parents. Obviously, Title X clinics don’t provide abortions. They’re not allowed to by federal law. But teens are definitely, have been allowed to seek birth control without parental involvement. And if this lawsuit ends up getting upheld, that’s going to change, too.
Varney: I’ll be interested, though, if I can ask, because I’m curious about your opinions on all this, is that, again, when I was at the march and that summit, you know, I asked every single person I interviewed, well, OK, so you want to stop abortion? What about birth control? Knowing full well that for many of these people, most of them are deeply religious and they do not believe in birth control. But Kristan Hawkins, from the Students for Life, her line, which I have heard from others as well, is, quote, “Chemical birth control is dangerous to women.” So I will be curious to see how we as journalists confront the misinformation that has always been percolating in pro-life circles for many, many years. But how will we confront that misinformation in our stories? You know, I actually chose, in my reporting for the NewsHour over the weekend, not to use that clip, because I would then have to go into several paragraphs of, actually, that’s not the case. So I’m curious what we’re going to do about that, because they will make that claim. And then are we going to treat it in the same way that we treated, you know, Donald Trump when he would sort of make things up?
Rovner: Well, there’s also the further complication — if you go back to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case in 2014 — is that some people and organizations oppose some types of birth control because they say — this is sort of famously with the IUD, the intrauterine device — that it can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, and therefore that’s a very early abortion, or some types of progesterone, [that] only birth control can prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. It turns out in most cases that is not the case scientifically, but that is still their belief. And the Hobby Lobby case basically said, if you believe it, that’s your religion and you can have it that way. So it’s already a complicated case, and I’m sure we will see more of this going forward. But I want to drill a little bit deeper on the future of the abortion pill, mifepristone, which actually does end a pregnancy. It’s the first of a two-drug combination used for medication abortion. Both sides in the abortion debate seem to be zeroing in on medication abortion as the next big target: abortion rights forces, because the ability to end an early pregnancy without going to a physical abortion clinic or having surgery, it’s preferable for now a majority of people seeking abortions; anti-abortion forces are against it for pretty much the same reason. It’s a way for abortions to continue mostly out of public sight. So let’s start with the abortion rights side. What’s being done to make the pill more easily available? We’ve had a lot of activity on that front just in the last couple of weeks, right?
Ollstein: Yeah. So there’s been efforts for years now to petition the FDA to loosen the restrictions around who can get the pill, where they can get it, when they can get it. And that has slowly led to those rules being loosened over time. So a couple of years ago, the FDA moved to allow telemedicine prescriptions and patients being able to receive the pills by mail. At first, they said, OK, just during the pandemic because it’s too dangerous to go into a clinic. And then they said, OK, we looked at the data, and actually this is safe to do permanently. And then just very recently, they said that those prescriptions can also be sent to retail pharmacies. So you can pick them up at your local CVS or Walgreens. And that is broadening where and when and how patients can get these pills. But again, only in states where their use is not already banned or severely restricted, which is, you know, a lot of states right now. Some of those laws are blocked in court, so the exact count is always fluctuating. But it’s around 18 states where that is not … those options for obtaining the pills are not there for patients right now.
Rovner: There’s also lawsuits challenging these bans, right? Sandhya, I see you nodding.
Raman: We have three main lawsuits that I think that we’re all watching right now. We have one from last year from anti-abortion groups that is challenging the 2000 approval of mifepristone, on the grounds of it should rescind the approval by the FDA. And so the next step is, as early as next month, the judge there in that case could issue a preliminary injunction that would mean that there wouldn’t be mifepristone nationwide, not just in that district. And the thing about that case that’s interesting is, I think, regardless of what we see happen there, it will get appealed and that would go to the 5th Court of Appeals, which is notorious for doing a lot of the Obamacare cases that we’ve seen in the health space over the past few years.
Rovner: And a lot of abortion cases over the years, too.
Raman: Yes, yes.
Rovner: Because it’s what Texas and the 5th Circuit in Texas and Louisiana and a couple of other Southern states.
Raman: Yeah. And then the second two … came yesterday. And they’re interesting in that they’re on the state level in that one of the main manufacturers of mifepristone GenBioPro is suing in West Virginia over the fact that the state abortion laws that they say are at odds with mifepristone in the state due to the near-total ban. And then, in North Carolina, a physician is also suing saying that the state laws essentially are also at war with the federal jurisdiction over this.
Rovner: Yeah, basically, they’re saying that states can’t individually, basically, make unavailable a drug that’s been approved by the FDA because think of how that would be if every state could decide whether every drug was going to be legal in that state, we would have basically chaos with a lot more than just the abortion pill.
Ollstein: Arguably, we do, basically, have chaos right now.
Rovner: That is a fair point. There were cases in Massachusetts several years ago about a new opiate that eventually there’s a federal court that said, no, no, no, Massachusetts, we get what you’re trying to do, but you can’t overrule the FDA. Basically, if the FDA says this is safe and effective and it’s going to be available, then you have to abide by that. So we will see if that’s going to happen with the abortion pill.
Varney: Can I just add something?
Varney: That I was just reading about abortion pill bans in different states, including South Dakota. And the targeted advertisement I got from Google was for a company called hims, which is for Viagra. So I’m reading here about how abortion pills are not allowed, abortion is illegal, and I hope this is a family podcast, but this is an advertisement that anybody can see. It says: Get hard, stay hard, and last longer. So this is the advertisement you get when you go to the AP and you read a story about abortion.
Rovner: Great. So the other side is also having some creative ways to go after the abortion pill. I don’t think it’s them who’s planting the advertisements for men. But Alice, you uncovered this story about some groups charging that the pill can cause environmental damage in wastewater, right?
Ollstein: Yes. So, look, anti-abortion groups know people are still obtaining these pills in states where they’re not allowed to do so. And so they are looking to, you know, whatever they can look at in order to block that from happening. And they’re trying to get really creative. And so one of the several new things they’re trying is they’re trying to cite environmental laws in order to get state lawmakers to pass new restrictions, in order to get state AGs to move in and do more enforcement actions to stop the use of these pills. So they are alleging that because people take the pills at home and have an abortion at home, that goes into the wastewater, that that is a risk to wildlife, livestock, humans. There is not evidence for this right now. I talked to people who study the effect of other pharmaceuticals in wastewater, and they say that this is just infinitesimal, but this is something they’re trying. Again, it’s not the only thing they’re trying. But, you know, it could have some legs. They’ve already convinced one state to introduce legislation specifically along these lines — West Virginia — saying that any doctor that prescribes the pill also has to give the patient a medical waste bag in order to bag the abortion and not have it go into the wastewater. They are trying to do this in other states. You know, the goal is, again, to stop the use of the pills altogether.
Varney: And when I was at the summit on Saturday, they had an hour-and-a-half-long session on this. And it was in this ballroom, and it was just packed with high school and college students primarily. And they plan on doing a taste-the-water challenge at different campuses; they’re starting in Texas. And they said very specifically, we are not going to have any signs that say anything about how we’re pro-life or opposed to abortion. We’re not going to have anything that says “fetus.” We’re just going to have glasses of water up on the table at these campuses and we’re going to invite students to step up and taste the water. And then we’re going to tell them that there is likely traces of the abortion pill in this water. And so they’re going to use high school students and college students to sort of run these taste-the-water challenges, to bring in this new idea and spread it around.
Rovner: Super. Can’t wait. All right. Well, moving on. One of the interesting outcomes of this decision is that it’s also affecting people who aren’t pregnant, don’t have anything to do with being pregnant. There have been a bunch of stories about women of childbearing age being unable to get medications for lupus and other conditions. How is that happening?
Ollstein: Well, again, you know, these things are not just used for one purpose. This actually came up pretty recently because some medical groups were petitioning the FDA to add more things to the abortion pill label so that they can be more legally protected in obtaining these medications for non-abortion purposes. Right now, the pill is only technically supposed to be prescribed for an abortion, but it’s used off-label for all of these other medical treatments. And so you have instances where pharmacists who are also newly empowered right now to deny prescriptions to people based on what they assume it’s being used for. And that’s leading to a lot of patients not being able to obtain prescriptions for other conditions.
Rovner: And for other drugs, right? I mean, drugs that can cause abortion, but aren’t the abortion pill. I’m thinking mostly of methotrexate, which is used for a lot of different conditions, but is also in some countries used as an abortion pill. And we’ve seen lots of cases where people are unable to get their methotrexate prescriptions refilled. People who have been using it for years. So that’s been complicated.
That’s it for Part I of our special, two-part podcast on the state of the abortion debate 50 years after Roe v. Wade. Don’t forget to download Part II, which will be right after this in your feed. It’s got the rest of our discussion, plus some very special extra credit. Thanks for listening.
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This story was produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.