Louisiana lawmakers vote to make abortion pills controlled substances

Louisiana lawmakers passed legislation Thursday making the state the first in the nation to designate abortion pills as controlled dangerous substances. Possession of the drugs without a prescription would be a crime punishable by prison time and thousands of dollars in fines.

The legislation, which passed the state Senate by a vote of 29-7, now goes to Gov. Jeff Landry, a Republican who previously defended the state's strict abortion ban in court as attorney general. You are expected to sign it.

By classifying the abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol as Schedule IV drugs — a category of drugs with some potential for abuse or addiction that includes Ambien, Valium and Xanax, among others — state lawmakers say they aim to curb the illicit distribution of the drugs for abortions. But the Food and Drug Administration does not consider the two drugs to have any potential for abuse or addiction, and years of research have overwhelmingly shown that both pills are safe.

Because Louisiana already bans most abortions, and because the two drugs are also prescribed for other uses — both can be used during miscarriages, and misoprostol is often used to prevent ulcers and aid in childbirth — hundreds of Doctors in the state have staunchly opposed the legislation.

“I understand that this might give some heartburn to some in this body,” state Sen. Thomas Pressly, who supported the bill, told other lawmakers Thursday. “But I really believe this is the right step to ensure that criminal action on the front end is stopped.”

Doctors and other health professionals warned lawmakers that the bill would send the false message that the drugs are dangerous and could cause delays in treating patients with non-abortion-related medical needs.

“What this will do is make it more difficult to use these drugs safely and legally,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, director of the New Orleans Department of Health, who helped organize a letter opposing the measure. “It will create confusion, fear, barriers to the use of these drugs for all indications other than abortion,” she added.

Republicans and the powerful anti-abortion group Louisiana Right to Life have disputed these concerns and accused abortion rights groups of stirring up unnecessary fears. As with most abortion restrictions and bans, pregnant women would be exempt from criminal penalties imposed by the bill, which can include fines of thousands of dollars and up to five years in prison.

Liz Murrill, the state attorney general, wrote on social media: “This legislation does NOT prohibit these drugs from being prescribed and distributed in Louisiana for legal and legitimate reasons.”

Dr. Avegno, who is an emergency medicine doctor, and other doctors said classifying drugs in Schedule IV imposes some logistical hurdles, such as additional steps to request prescriptions at the pharmacy and possibly needing paper prescriptions.

Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, a reproductive rights organization, said that, especially if there is hemorrhage during a miscarriage, “things can change for the worse very quickly” and doctors worry they won't be able to “call health care quickly.” a prescription for these drugs in the way that I am currently able to do so.”

Abortion opponents have argued that abortion pills are unsafe, making that claim in a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court that seeks to limit access to mifepristone, the first pill in the two-drug abortion regimen that now accounts for nearly two-thirds of abortions in the United States.

But numerous studies have found that serious complications are very rare, with less than 1 percent of patients requiring hospitalization after taking the abortion pill. Earlier this year, a journal retracted two studies by anti-abortion authors that suggested abortion pills were unsafe.

Louisiana, a deeply conservative state where some Democrats have repeatedly joined Republicans in supporting anti-abortion laws, has been at the forefront of restricting abortion rights since the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Most abortions are banned in the state, except in certain cases where a woman's life or health is in danger or the fetus has one of several fatal conditions.

State abortion laws have created confusion, particularly in 2022, when a woman was denied an abortion because her fetus's fatal condition was not clearly listed as a medical exception, and doctors were afraid of running afoul of the laws.

Many patients living in Louisiana or other states with bans have traveled to obtain abortions in states where abortion remains legal, or have received prescriptions and pills from doctors and nurses in other states under shield laws. These ways of obtaining an abortion are unlikely to be affected by the new bill.

David S. Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University, said a relatively small number of people could be subject to sanctions under the bill, including members of informal networks of volunteers who provide pills without a prescription to some communities and women who are not pregnant but who order the abortion pill just in case.

“It might make some people think twice, and it might expose some people to criminal prosecution who are not exposed right now,” he said. But, she added, “this will not stop people in Louisiana from obtaining and using the abortion pill.”

Mr. Pressly, a Shreveport Republican, said he sponsored the bill after his sister, Catherine Pressly Herring, discovered that her husband had laced the water she drank with misoprostol in an illicit effort to stop her pregnancy. (He pleaded guilty to two criminal charges. The pregnancy continued and the baby was born prematurely.)

“No one should use the abortion pill as a weapon against themselves,” Ms. Pressly Herring told Louisiana lawmakers in early April. Sitting next to her brother as he testified about her experience, she added: “As someone who has unknowingly and involuntarily ingested chemical abortion pills, I stand before you today to ask for your protection against this weapon.”

Pressly initially focused his legislation on making criminal forced abortion a crime, a measure that drew no objections from many abortion rights supporters. But late last month, she added a proposal to criminalize the use of the two abortion drugs without a prescription, which drew criticism from across the country.

“What we are simply doing is saying that we should protect women like my sister from malicious bad actors who are trying to kill their unborn child or an unborn child and harm a woman,” Pressly told lawmakers during Thursday's debate.

“I want to be very clear: These are drugs that are prescribed today, they will continue to be able to be prescribed in the future,” Pressly added.

Every Republican in the Senate supported the bill, including state Sen. Heather Miley Cloud, who said, “the benefits of this bill far outweigh the risks.”

“This is good for women,” she added.

Several state Democrats condemned the attempt to poison Mr. Pressly's sister and signaled support for the underlying bill. But they focused their opposition on the two-pill amendment, questioning whether there had been enough time to consider the change and whether it would lead to a delay in issuing needed prescriptions.

“We're using politics to decide how to handle women's care, and that shouldn't be the case,” said state Sen. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat from New Orleans. (Only two Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bill.)

Nationally, Democrats, who have seen abortion and reproductive rights become a potent political issue across the country, seized on the amendment as evidence of conservative overreach. After the Louisiana House of Representatives voted to approve the abortion pill on Tuesday, President Biden's reelection campaign this week sought to tie the legislation to former President Donald J. Trump, accusing him of “enabling this legislation cruel that would jeopardize women's health.” .”

Ms Erenberg said abortion rights groups would explore a possible legal challenge to the bill. “I definitely have concerns about whether this can be replicated in other states,” she said.

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