WASHINGTON: The latest battle in the fight over abortion in the United States is being waged over a pill.
Anti-abortion activists have trained their sights on the commonly used abortion pill after the Supreme Court last year tossed out the federal right to the procedure.
The abortion pill has been authorised in the United States for more than 20 years, but its continued use may be threatened by an upcoming ruling by a Texas judge.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the pill accounted for more than half — 53% — of the 930,160 abortions documented by the reproductive health research and policy organisation in the United States in 2020.
That was up from 17% in 2008 and 39% in 2017.
While the number of so-called medication abortions has gone up dramatically in the United States in recent years, it is still not as prevalent as in several European nations.
In France, for example, medication abortions represented 70% of the total number of abortions in 2020.
The abortion pill is different from the "morning after" pill, which is taken by a woman after sexual intercourse to prevent becoming pregnant.
The abortion pill is taken to induce an abortion once a woman confirms that she is pregnant.
It in fact involves more than one pill. The first, mifepristone, also known as RU 486, stops a pregnancy from proceeding normally by blocking the production of the hormone progesterone.
Another drug, misoprostol, is taken up to 48 hours later and causes cramps, bleeding and the emptying of the uterus.
Abortion pills can be used at home and a medical setting is not required.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light to mifepristone and misoprostol in 2000.
It is approved for use up to 10 weeks of pregnancy, after which a woman would need to undergo an abortion through another means such as vacuum aspiration.
The average cost of a medication abortion at Planned Parenthood is $580 but it can cost up to $800.
The use of the abortion pill during the specified time period is considered to be safe and effective by medical experts.
Pregnancies are successfully terminated in more than 95% of cases where the pill is used, according to studies.
Serious complications — excessive bleeding, fever, infection or allergic reaction — which require a medical consult, are rare.
The abortion pill does not work for ectopic pregnancies, which account for around 2% of all pregnancies and where a fertilized egg grows outside the uterus.
At least 13 US states have banned most abortions, including medication abortions, since the Supreme Court's ruling in June overturning the constitutional right to an abortion.
Despite the bans, a number of organizations have mobilized to provide abortion pills to women in states where abortion is restricted.
The extent of their efforts is difficult to evaluate.
In the states where abortion is legal, the FDA recently loosened restrictions surrounding mifepristone, allowing it to be sent through the mail with a prescription or to be sold directly in pharmacies like any other drug.
A conservative Texas judge is hearing a case brought by anti-abortion activists who are seeking a nationwide ban on mifepristone.
The alliance of anti-abortion groups claims the FDA should never have approved what they claim is a "dangerous" drug.
The judge is expected to rule shortly.
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