Doctors join federal lawmakers to support abortion medication

On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether a drug commonly used to induce abortions should remain widely available, doctors from two of Oregon’s leading providers were joined by Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici to support women’s reproductive health.

Dr. Sara Kennedy and Dr. Maria Rodriguez said they feel obligated to speak up for their patients, who may be unaware of the legal proceedings that could ban or restrict access to mifepristone. Taken with another drug, misoprostol, it is used to induce about two-thirds of abortions in Oregon and nationwide.

The justices heard arguments about a ban approved last year by a U.S. District Court judge in Texas and significant restrictions — though not a ban — by a federal appeals court. The high court is expected to release a decision by the end of June. Because of a countersuit by the attorneys general of Oregon and Washington, neither the ban nor the restrictions took effect while the case made its way to the high court.

Kennedy, an obstetrician/gynecologist, is chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Columbia Willamette, where the gathering took place.

“The reality is that our average patient is not sitting in front of the TV and following this,” she told reporters on Tuesday, March 26. “Our average patient is busy at work, often working two or three jobs, and taking care of kids. They are not paying attention because they do not have time to worry about what rights the government is taking away from us.”

Since the high court in 2022 overturned a half-century-old guarantee that abortion is a federal constitutional right and left it to states whether abortion should be legal, Kennedy said Planned Parenthood has seen an increase of 1,200% in people seeking care — most of them from states that have banned or severely restricted abortion.

“We feel very passionately that we need to be there for our patients and this is a right that they have — just like we have enjoyed up to this point,” she said.

Rodriguez, also an obstetrician/gynecologist, is director of the Center for Women’s Health at Oregon Health & Science University. She said that if mifepristone is unavailable or harder to obtain, the alternative is more costly surgery.

“If the option goes away, or it becomes less effective as it would with a misoprostol-only option, I think we are going to see an increased demand from people needing surgical procedures and that people are going to have delays in care,” she said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to mifepristone in 2000, 10 years after it was introduced from Europe. The agency later allowed it to be distributed by mail and prescribed by doctors through telehealth without requiring in-person visits.

What Oregon members said

“We know that medical decisions must be based on science, not politics. They must be made by patients, not politicians,” said Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton who has been in the House since 2012.

“I am a member of Congress. I signed up to make tough decisions. But one decision I should never make is whether and when someone who is not me should bear a child.”

Bonamici was among the members of Congress to sign on to written arguments, known as a brief, supporting the FDA.

Bonamici was still in high school when the high court issued its decision in Roe v. Wade back in 1973.

“We have all seen the horrific accounts of what has happened to pregnant women and girls in states that have outlawed abortion,” she said. “But we have been here before.”

Bonamici said that where the issue has gone directly to voters — Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio — abortion rights advocates have prevailed every time.

She said Congress should write into law the guarantee in Roe v. Wade — which the House did in 2022 when it still had a Democratic majority, but an evenly split Senate failed to act — and regulate pregnancy crisis centers, which generally are not medical clinics and attempt to dissuade women from considering abortions.  

When he was still in the House in 1990, Wyden led the first congressional hearing on mifepristone, which the administration of President George H.W. Bush sought to thwart for political reasons.

“They didn’t even go through the motions of making decisions based on science,” Wyden recalled.

“I am comfortable that we can take our message all over this country because what started more than 30 years ago is what we are going to build on in the days ahead. We should ensure that we add to good science in reproductive health, rather than rip it out and take it away from people.”

In the very same room at Planned Parenthood on Jan. 2, the Oregon Democrat warned that if opponents of abortion rights have their way in this case, it would open the way for legal challenges to the federal approval process for all medications, not just mifepristone.

Others weigh in

“A decision in favor of anti-abortion groups will not only trigger a devastating blow to access to reproductive care, it will also severely undermine medication innovation and the drug approval process for many critical medications,” said Mariana Garcia Medina, senior policy associate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. The national ACLU filed arguments with the court in support of the FDA.

Samantha Gladu is executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, its public policy and political arm.

The Oregon Legislature approved laws in 2019 — and again in 2023 — to safeguard access to abortion. They were signed by Democratic Govs. Kate Brown and Tina Kotek. A six-week walkout by Senate Republicans in 2023 forced majority Democrats in House Bill 2002 to require parental notification for minors under age 15, or obtain consent from two providers acting independently that such notice was not in the minor’s best interest. State records show those cases amount to a fraction of actual abortions.

Between 1978 and 2018, Oregon voters rejected six ballot initiatives to ban or restrict abortions. In 1999, Republican legislative majorities passed a measure to require parental notification, but Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed it.

“It is not by accident that Oregon is the most protective state for abortion access in our country,” Kovacs said. “It is because community activists and advocates have worked hard to make sure we are that way — and we will keep fighting every single day to make sure we stay that way. It is also because we have strong champions for reproductive rights.”

Megan Kovacs spoke for the Northwest Abortion Access Fund, which maintains a toll-free hotline and pays for patients’ pills, procedures and travel expenses. It does not provide abortions.

“What we are trying to do is clearly inform people that medication abortion is available and accessible right now and will continue to be,” she said.

“Abortion pills allow people, no matter where they live, to terminate their pregnancies in the safety of their own homes… A fringe movement of wealthy elites whose views are completely out of step with the vast majority of Americans is invested in banning them.”

pwong@pamplinmedia.com

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