- The FDA announced that pills used for abortions can be offered at retail pharmacies.
- Research has consistently shown that mifepristone is safe and effective.
- Walgreens and CVS said they will offer the medication.
Retail pharmacies will now be able to dispense abortion pills to people with a prescription, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said on Tuesday.
After the news from the FDA, both CVS and Walgreens said they plan to offer the medication, according to the New York Times.
Mifepristone, the first of two drugs used in medication abortions, could previously only be obtained at clinics, medical offices, and hospitals. The second drug, misoprostol, can already easily be obtained at pharmacies with a prescription.
There was a brief window, between July 2020 to January 2021, in which the in-person requirement to get mifepristone was not being enforced due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, patients were able to access the medication via mail-order pharmacies.
Research has consistently shown that mifepristone is safe and effective and that lifting the in-person requirement does not lead to an increase in serious adverse events, such as hemorrhage or emergency surgical intervention.
Following the FDA’s actions on Tuesday — a move that has been entitled the Mifepristone Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) Program — patients will be able get mifepristone at retail pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens or via mail-order pharmacies.
“In the wake of extreme abortion restriction, this is a victory for increased pharmacy access to this safe and effective medication, despite continued inequities that seem unnecessary and unjust,” says Dr. Hayley Miller, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health.
How the program will change access to medication abortion
In December 2021, the FDA said it was working to remove the requirement that pregnant people had to obtain mifepristone, a drug that blocks hormones necessary for pregnancy, in-person.
That requirement was officially lifted on Tuesday.
“In 2021, after conducting a comprehensive review of the Mifepristone REMS Program, the FDA determined, based on the available data and information, that the REMS must be modified to reduce burden on the health care delivery system and to ensure the benefits of the product outweigh the risks,” the FDA stated on its website.
In order to get the medication from a pharmacy, patients must fill out a consent form and go through a health provider that’s certified to administer and prescribe abortion services.
Healthcare providers who want to prescribe mifepristone must be able to ensure the patient is no more than 10 weeks pregnant, as mifepristone can only be given up in the first 10 weeks of pregnacy.
They must also confirm the patient does not have an ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when a fertilized egg implants outside of the uterus, and be able to provide any necessary surgical interventions or refer patients to healthcare providers who can provide the necessary care.
Letting pharmacies distribute mifepristone will expand access to care
Even while Roe v. Wade — the landmark ruling that protected people’s right to have an abortion — was intact, millions of people faced barriers, including poverty, distance from a health care facility, or discrimination, that made it difficult to access abortion care services.
When the Supreme Court overturned Roe in June 2022, it made it even harder for people across the country to get an abortion.
“As a physician who prescribes mifepristone and misoprostol for medication abortion and for management of early pregnancy loss, it can be challenging for patients to come into a clinic to have mifepristone dispensed for various reasons,” says Dr. Tania Basu Serna, an obstetrician and gynecologist with UCSF Health.
By eliminating the need to be seen in-person at a clinic, the Mifepristone REMS Program will make it easier for many patients to access the medications in a safe, timely manner.
“Being able to go their neighborhood pharmacy, where they may go to get their other prescriptions or having their regular mail-pharmacy send these medications, is an huge step towards improving both access to abortion and towards normalizing abortion,” Basu Serna said.
Telemedicine abortion, which gives pregnant patients the opportunity to access abortion medications remotely, can help significantly expand access to safe abortion, research shows.
According to Miller, mifepristone is a safe medication and patients who are prescribed the drug are thoroughly counseled on the risks and steps to take if they experience an adverse side effect.
“We do not foresee an increase in maternal morbidities by improving access to abortion,” Miller said.
Still, many states will continue to prohibit telehealth services that provide medication abortion, and some will uphold regulations that require patients to get an ultrasound, undergo counseling before getting an abortion, or go to at least one in-person medical appointment.
Patients living in states restricting abortion will still need to travel to get the pills, Basu Serna said.
The Mifepristone REMS Program is a step in the right direction, say experts.
“This is a huge win for improving abortion access and health equity, especially for people of color and people with low income who already face systemic barriers to care,” Basu Serna said.
The bottom line:
Retail pharmacies will now be able to dispense abortion pills to people with a prescription, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed on Tuesday. By eliminating the need to be seen in-person at a clinic, the FDA’s Mifepristone REMS Program will make it easier for many patients to access the medications in a safe, timely manner.
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