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Supreme Court sets date for high-stakes abortion pill oral arguments

This case is to be the Supreme Court's first significant return to the abortion issue since it overturned Roe V. Wade in 2022.

The Supreme Court on Monday set a date for one of the highest-stakes and closest-watched cases of the term — announcing it will hear oral arguments on how patients can access mifepristone, the commonly used abortion pill, on March 26. In December, the high court said it would her the case brought by the conservative group Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine challenging policies expanding access to the drug mifepristone. Those policies, issued in recent years by the FDA, have allowed the pills to be prescribed online, mailed to patients and dispensed at brick-and-mortar pharmacies.

The court turned down a broader challenge by the same group that sought to overturn the decade sold approval of the drug for use in abortions — arguments that could have effectively banned the pills nationwide.

The case, which is to be the Supreme Court’s first significant return to the abortion issue since it overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, could affect health care for millions — including those in states that protect abortion rights.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to reverse lower court rulings that sharply curtail access to mifepristone. The 5th Circuit’s ruling last year, the department said, “threatens profound harms to the government, the healthcare system, patients and the public” and would “upend the regulatory regime for mifepristone.”

The appellate court’s ruling is on hold for now, meaning there will be no change in how the pills are distributed until the Supreme Court issues its decision, most likely in June.

Mifepristone is used in combination with another pill, misoprostol, in a majority of abortions nationwide. It is approved for use up to around 10 weeks of pregnancy, though the Supreme Court could roll that back to seven weeks in addition to requiring an in-person visit with a doctor in order to obtain the pills. Medical groups warn this will impede access for people who live in rural areas and people who lack transportation and may not be able to reach a doctor’s office.

The groups challenging the FDA policies argue the agency did not adequately study the safety risks of the drug before approving it for sale in 2000 and, later, expanding patient access to it. The Biden administration, medical societies and major pharmaceutical companies have pointed to the extensive data documenting the drug’s safety — with a complication rate lower than Tylenol — and warned that a ruling against the FDA will invite ideological challenges to other medications, from contraception to Covid shots.

The Supreme Court is also set to hear arguments in April on another abortion case related to hospitals’ obligation to provide abortions to patients experiencing a medical emergency.