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A confusing series of federal court decisions have left access to the abortion drug mifepristone in deep limbo across the country.
Maine is no exception, despite a permissive set of abortion laws and Democratic control of the State House. Both of those things shielded access here after last year’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn federal abortion rights. The status quo reigns for now, but that could change by the weekend.
What happened: The first ruling last week from a conservative judge in Texas halted federal approval of the drug. It was delayed for a week to let President Joe Biden’s administration prepare an appeal. At roughly the same time, another federal court in Washington preserved access in states including Maine in direct conflict with the earlier decision.
Late Wednesday, a federal appeals court reined in the Texas decision but retained strict limits including barring prescriptions after seven weeks and distribution by mail. That decision won plaudits from the anti-abortion conservatives who led the Texas lawsuit.
Effects on the ground: Given its rural nature, Maine is among the states that rely most on medication abortions, which made up 61 percent of abortions here in 2021. Mifepristone is used in concert with another drug to end pregnancies under the most common method, and it is deemed safe and effective by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, an abortion provider that operates in Maine, issued an update on Thursday saying it is still using mifepristone.
Nicole Clegg, the group’s acting CEO, said that is only assured through the Texas decision’s delay expiring Friday. Past that, all bets are off in terms of access, Clegg said. The Washington decision could allow access to continue, but she said it is too early to say.
This is forcing early-morning meetings on what the legal landscape is and how to communicate that to patients, Clegg said, criticizing the decision as “really bad” for abortion access in Maine.
“In any other delivery of health care, how is this an acceptable way to practice?” she said. “It’s nuts.”
What Maine’s doing: Gov. Janet Mills said this week that she is considering following states including Massachusetts in stockpiling mifepristone, while Attorney General Aaron Frey was part of coalitions of top attorneys in Democratic-led states seeking to preserve access in the Washington case and fighting the Texas ruling.
In the Legislature, abortion pills are being targeted as part of a bill from Rep. Reagan Paul, R-Winterport, that seeks to bar them from being prescribed in telehealth appointments or by mail. It is likely to be rejected by the Democratic-led Legislature.
“It seems way too open,” Mike McClellan, the policy director for the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, said of abortion pill access last month.