Louisiana lawmakers advance bill to reclassify abortion drugs, worrying doctors

Louisiana lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a bill that would make it a crime to possess two abortion-inducing drugs without a prescription, a move that doctors fear could prevent them from adequately treating their patients in a timely manner.

Under the bill, which aims to reclassify mifepristone and misoprostol, pregnant patients would still be able to possess the drugs with a valid prescription. But in a state with one of the country’s highest maternal mortality rates, doctors fear the legislation would have chilling effects.

More than 200 doctors signed a letter to lawmakers saying the measure could produce a “barrier to physicians’ ease of prescribing appropriate treatment” and cause unnecessary fear and confusion among both patients and doctors. The bill heads to the Senate next.

“These medications touch on maternal health, which, as we’ve all discussed for several years now, is really bad in Louisiana,” state Rep. Mandie Landry, a Democrat, said as she argued against reclassification of the drugs. “In their (doctors’) view, this (measure) will have very bad effects.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone in 2000 to end pregnancy, when used in combination with misoprostol. The pills also have other common uses, including to treat miscarriages, induce labor and stop obstetric hemorrhaging.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in March on behalf of doctors who oppose abortion and want to restrict access to mifepristone. The justices did not appear ready to limit access to the drug, however.

The reclassification of the two drugs in Louisiana is an amendment to a bill originating in the Senate that would create the crime of “coerced criminal abortion by means of fraud.” The measure would make it a crime for a person to knowingly use medications to cause or attempt to cause an abortion without a pregnant person’s knowledge or consent.

Proponents of the reclassification say it would prevent people from unlawfully using the pills.

“He wants to stop these abortion pills from getting into the hands of those people who should not be able to have them,” GOP state Rep. Julie Emerson said of Sen. Thomas Pressly, the Republican sponsoring the bill. Pressly’s sister has shared her own story, of her husband slipping her abortion-inducing drugs without her knowledge or consent.

The bill as amended must now return to the Senate. Specifically, the amendment aims to label the medications as Schedule IV drugs under the state’s Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law.

Under the measure, doctors would need a specific license to prescribe mifepristone and misoprostol, and the drugs would have to be stored in certain facilities that in some cases could end up being located far from rural clinics. Opponents say such restrictions could cause delays in doctors prescribing and patients obtaining the drugs.

The bill, with the amendment, passed in Louisiana’s GOP-controlled House, 66-30.

Louisiana has a near-total abortion ban in place, which applies both to medical and surgical abortions. The only exceptions to the ban are if there is substantial risk of death or impairment to the mother if she continues the pregnancy or in the case of “medically futile” pregnancies, when the fetus has a fatal abnormality.

Currently, 14 states are enforcing bans on abortion at all stages of pregnancy, with limited exceptions.

Although it is already a crime in Louisiana to be given medication to induce an abortion, a recent survey found that thousands of women in states with abortion bans or restrictions are receiving abortion pills in the mail from states that have laws protecting prescribers.

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