Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Supreme Court Allows Enforcement of FDA Rule On Medical Abortions While Appeals Are Pending

The U.S. Supreme Court in Food & Drug Administration v. American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, (US Sup. Ct., Jan 12, 2021), stayed a Maryland federal district court's injunction pending appeal of an FDA rule on access to medical abortions. The FDA requires mifepristone, one of two drugs necessary for a medical abortion, to be picked up in person by the patient at a hospital, clinic or medical office.  The district court had continued to enjoin that requirement during the COVID epidemic, even though in October the Supreme Court had sent the case back for further consideration by the district court.  Now, in a case on its so-called "shadow docket" (cases seeking emergency relief without full oral argument) the Supreme Court in an unsigned opinion has granted a stay of the injunction pending disposition of appeals in the 4th Circuit and Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Roberts filed a brief concurring opinion, stating in part:

The question before us is not whether the requirements for dispensing mifepristone impose an undue burden on a woman’s right to an abortion as a general matter. The question is instead whether the District Court properly ordered the Food and Drug Administration to lift those established requirements because of the court’s own evaluation of the impact of the COVID–19 pandemic. Here as in related contexts concerning government responses to the pandemic, my view is that courts owe significant deference to the politically accountable entities with the “background, competence, and expertise to assess public health.”

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Kagan, filed a dissenting opinion, saying in part:

Due to particularly severe health risks, vastly limited clinic options, and the 10-week window for obtaining a medication abortion, the FDA’s requirement that women obtain mifepristone in person during the COVID–19 pandemic places an unnecessary and undue burden on their right to abortion....

What rejoinder does the Government have to the possibility that refusing to suspend the FDA’s in-person requirements for mifepristone during the COVID–19 pandemic will cause some women to miss the 10-week window altogether? No cause for concern, the Government assures this Court, because even if the FDA’s in-person requirements cause women to lose the opportunity for a medication abortion, they can still seek out a surgical abortion. What a callous response.

Justice Breyer dissented without filing or joining an opinion.  SCOTUSblog has further coverage of the decision.