By Hope Yen, Bobby Caina Calvan, and Ken Miller
The nation's top health official said Sunday that a court ruling threatening the availability of a main drug used in medication abortion was “not America" and he did not rule out defying the judge's order if necessary.
“We want the courts to overturn this reckless decision,” Xavier Becerra, President Joe Biden's health secretary, told CNN's “State of the Union.” “We want, yes, that women continue to have access to a drug that’s proven itself safe. Millions of women have used this drug around the world.”
He stressed that for now, women do have access to the abortion medication mifepristone after a federal judge in Texas, Donald Trump-appointee Matthew Kacsmaryk, put his ruling from Friday on hold for a week so federal officials could file a challenge. The drug was approved in 2000 by the Food and Drug Administration, which is overseen by the Health and Human Services Department headed by Becerra.
Biden said his administration would fight the Texas ruling. Kacsmaryk's 67-page order gave the government seven days to appeal.
“We intend to do everything to make sure it’s available to them not just in a week, but moving forward, period, because mifepristone is one of the safest and most effective medicines that we have seen over the last 20 years to help women with their health care, especially abortion care,” Becerra said.
Asked whether he might recommend that the FDA ignore a ban, Becerra said, “Everything is on the table."
There is uncertainty about access to the most commonly used method of abortion in the United States following two separate and conflicting court rulings in Texas and Washington over the legality of mifepristone.
Kacsmaryk's decision ordering a hold on federal approval of mifepristone overruled decades of scientific approval. But a ruling at nearly the same time in Washington state from that U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice, a Barack Obama appointee, directed U.S. authorities not to make any changes that would restrict access to the drug in at least 17 states where Democrats sued in an effort to protect availability.
Becerra said Kacsmaryk's order could have dire ramifications for the legality of any FDA-approved drug, such as vaccines, insulin or new Alzheimer's drugs coming onto the market because it seeks to “turn upside down” the entire FDA approval process.
The former California attorney general acknowledged a “good chance” that the case will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, which last year overturned Roe v. Wade and curtailed access to abortion across the country.
“If a judge decides to substitute his preference, his personal opinion for that of scientists and medical professionals, what drug isn’t subject to some kind of legal challenge? So we have to go to court,” he said.
“What you saw by that one judge in that one court, in that one state, that’s not America,” Becerra added. “America goes by the evidence. America does what’s fair. America does what is transparent and we can show that what we do is for the right reasons.”
Abortion opponents like Rose Mimms, the executive director of Arkansas Right to Life, welcomed the Texas decision. While some states like hers have sharply curtailed access to abortions, she wants stricter controls over abortion-inducing medications that can be delivered through the mail, even in states where abortion is illegal or severely restricted.
In Kacsmaryk's ruling, he noted how some groups are undermining a state's ability to regulate abortion. He specifically mentioned New York-based Mayday Health, a nonprofit that provides information on how to obtain the medication.
Mayday Health's executive director, Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, urged women to begin stockpiling mifepristone in case it is banned. She said pills can be obtained from international suppliers through the mail.
“You can order them now and keep mifepristone like you would keep Tylenol. It has a shelf life of about two years,” said Lincoln, a Portland, Oregon, obstetrician and gynecologist.
About a million people every month visit the organization's website. Following the Texas ruling, Lincoln said, the number of visits has become even more brisk.
While mifepristone and misoprostol, another abortion-inducing drug, remain available in the U.S., Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of We Testify, calls the court battle and debate over the drugs “a very slippery slope” toward an outright ban on abortion in any form.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said during an interview Saturday on CNN that she would push legislation that would require insurance companies to cover misoprostol, which can be used alone but is more effective when taken with mifepristone.
“We’re also concerned about the next phase,” Hochul said. “We’re trying to figure out all the different ways we can get ahead of this.”
The growing restrictions could particularly hurt people who don't have the resources to travel to such places as California and New York to get in-clinic abortions.
This story includes reporting from the Associated Press story "Competing Abortion Pill Rulings Sow Broad Alarm, Confusion," published April 8. Calvan reported from New York and Miller from Oklahoma City.