Supreme Court turns down Arizona appeal to limit abortion drugs

The court turns back Arizona regulations on abortion

The Supreme Court on Monday turned down Arizona's bid to limit how doctors prescribe drugs that are commonly used in early abortions.

The justices in an unsigned order dismissed an appeal from Arizona state lawyers and let stand a lower court ruling that blocked the abortion regulation from taking effect.

The court's action is the latest showing the justices are skeptical of strict new state regulations on abortion, or at least unwilling to confront the issue now.

In October, the court blocked Texas from enforcing part of a new abortion law that would have required all abortion clinics to meet the standards of an ambulatory surgical center. Lawyers for the clinics said this rule, if enforced, would have closed most of the state's remaining abortion facilities.

In the past decade, women seeking an early abortion have increasingly relied on drugs rather than surgery. Doctors have prescribed two drugs--mifepristone and misoprostol--which taken together can bring about an abortion during the first nine weeks of a pregnancy.  

In 2012, however, anti-abortion lawmakers in Arizona adopted a law requiring doctors to follow the "protocol" set by the Food and Drug Administration when it approved these drugs. They said they did so to "protect women from the dangerous and potentially deadly off-label use of abortion-inducing drugs."

Under the Arizona law, doctors could have prescribed the drugs up to only seven weeks of a pregnancy. And the product label called for prescribing far more of the first drug--mifepristone--than is commonly used now.

Medical experts say such off-label use of a drug is common and reflects the latest available information about how a medication is best used.

The Planned Parenthood Federation and an Arizona doctor went to court to challenge the new state restrictions. They contended the law put an "undue burden" on women seeking abortions.

“The Court did the right thing today, but this dangerous and misguided law should never have passed in the first place. Politicians across the country should take note — these harmful and unconstitutional restrictions won’t be tolerated by the courts or the public,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Politicians are not medical experts — but politicians have written this law with the ultimate goal of making safe, legal abortion hard or even impossible to access.” 

Planned Parenthood had noted that medication is used in about 41% of first-trimester abortions, and the Arizona law, if enforced, would have required women in parts of the state to make multiple visits to a clinic that was hundreds of miles away. The law would have also prevented women from using drugs if they discovered they were already seven weeks pregnant.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Arizona's law from taking effect in June. "Arizona has presented no evidence whatsoever that law furthers any interest in women's health," wrote Judge William Fletcher.

Arizona's Attorney General Thomas Horne appealed and argued the law left women with the option of obtaining a surgical abortion.

But without comment, the court said it would not hear the case of Humble vs. Planned Parenthood.

“By allowing to stand the Ninth Circuit’s strong decision blocking this underhanded law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ensured Arizona women will continue to have the same critical and constitutionally protected health care tomorrow that they have today,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. 

 Arizona's lawyers said similar measures are in effect in Texas and Ohio.

On Twitter: @DavidGSavage

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

8:15 a.m.: This story was updated to include comments from Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

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