Louisiana lawmakers advance first of its kind bill to criminalize abortion drugs

BATON ROUGE — Louisiana lawmakers moved forward with a bill on Tuesday aimed at criminalizing the possession of two abortion-inducing drugs without a prescription.

SB 276, which has garnered support from anti-abortion groups and criticism from some doctors who worry it could impede their ability to provide timely and effective treatment to patients, passed out of Louisiana’s GOP-controlled House in a 64-29 vote.

The bill aims to reclassify the medications mifepristone and misoprostol to a Schedule IV drug under the state’s Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substance Law. Louisiana already has a near-total abortion ban in place, so using the drugs to terminate a pregnancy except in very limited circumstances is already illegal. The only exceptions to the ban are if there is substantial risk of death or impairment to the mother.

The bill would be the first of its kind in the country if signed into law and could be punishable by a fine, jail time of up to 20 years, or both.

More than 250 OB-GYNs, emergency, internal medicine and other physicians from across the state signed a letter to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Thomas Pressly, arguing the move could threaten women’s health by delaying life-saving care.

“Schedule IV drugs currently include chloral hydrate, benzodiazepines (such as Xanax and Valium), phenobarbital, anesthetics, and other medications with clear and demonstrated dangers of abuse and dependence,” the letter argued. “Neither mifepristone nor misoprostol have been shown to have any potential for abuse, dependence, public health risk, nor high rates of adverse side effects.”

In the April 30 Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice committee hearing on the bill, Pressly’s sister, Catherine Pressly Herring, testified she was given abortion drugs without her knowledge by her ex-husband in Texas. Her ex-husband was sentenced to 180 days in jail. The senator said his sister’s story prompted his legislation.

“There’s a lot of concern and debate over the amendment that was added and I get that it probably would be unanimous if that wasn’t on there,” Rep. Julie Emerson said. “I totally understand and agree that there’s a lot of good uses for these medications but if over-utilized, it can be incredibly harmful and can cause death.”

Mifepristone and misoprostol are routinely used to treat miscarriages or stop obstetric hemorrhaging, induce labor, or prepare the cervix for a range of procedures inside the uterus, such as inserting an IUD or taking a biopsy of the uterine lining.

In 2000, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone to end a pregnancy, particularly when administered alongside misoprostol. Medical experts clarify that the use of drugs for abortions constitutes only a small percentage of their routine usage.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments presented by doctors advocating against abortion and seeking to curb accessibility to mifepristone. The justices signaled hesitancy to impose restrictions on access to the pill, however.

Some fear the scrutiny surrounding the medications could make patients, doctors and pharmacists reluctant to use it, which could delay the proper care for women. Though Rep. Julie Emerson (R), who introduced the bill for the House vote, argues that it doesn’t mean doctors can’t prescribe or administer the drugs.

Some Democrats, however, feel the bill and its amendments say otherwise.

“It delays the care and it could delay it significantly because of the steps you have to go through,” said Rep. Mandy Landry (D).

The measure will now go back to the Senate, and if approved, will then be sent to the governor who is expected to sign it into law.

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