The war over abortion rights has moved from the sidewalks in front of medical clinics to pharmacies and mailboxes. The Food and Drug Administration’s loosening of restrictions on abortion pills has provided some degree of protection to women in the post-Roe v. Wade world. But it also has nudged some in the anti-choice movement toward new levels of extremism — including rethinking their long-held position that only abortion providers should be punished, and not the women themselves.
After last summer’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe, one red state after another immediately outlawed the procedure. It was a foregone conclusion that eliminating a federal baseline-right to abortion would create essentially two Americas: states that recognize women’s right to control what happens in their own bodies until the point of fetal viability (the standard under Roe) and states like Missouri, which now denies that right under most circumstances. It took literally days after the court’s ruling for the first horror stories to emerge of women and girls desperately having to flee their own states to make their own medical decisions.
But in a potential game changer, the FDA has loosened regulations on the abortion medication mifepristone, part of a treatment that can end pregnancies within the first 10 weeks and is used in more than half of U.S. abortions. Already available by mail, the drug will now be approved for sale at retail pharmacies, with a doctor’s prescription.
In theory, a woman in Missouri could get an online prescription from an out-of-state doctor, drive over to an abortion-rights state like Illinois and fill the prescription in a pharmacy. Under this scenario, the only law-breaking that happens is when the woman returns to Missouri with the pills and takes them in the privacy of her home. But since Missouri’s anti-abortion law specifies that the women themselves cannot be prosecuted — only doctors and others who assist them — it’s difficult to see how Missouri could enforce that law.
Such scenarios frustrate anti-abortion advocates, and it’s pushing them toward dangerous ideas. In Missouri, some lawmakers have floated Kafkaesque schemes to restrict what information Missouri women can receive online, to control what they can do when they’re outside of Missouri and even to somehow punish out-of-state doctors with Missouri laws. Alabama’s top legal official recently suggested that women who take abortion pills there could be prosecuted. One Texas court is currently considering a case that could effectively ban abortion pills altogether. Some in Congress are agitating for a national abortion ban.
We’re not encouraging Missourians or anyone else to break the laws of their states. But the legislators who have forced these unjust statutes upon half their constituents were somewhat naïve to suppose that women (and those who support them) would just meekly accept this second-class citizenship. The danger now is of an anti-abortion backlash that could threaten ever-greater restrictions on biological autonomy.