The Biden administration has lifted the ban on getting the abortion pill by mail

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The Biden administration has lifted the ban on getting the abortion pill by mail
Demonstrators hold banners in an abortion rights rally outside of the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in the June Medical Services v. Russo case on March 4, 2020 in Washington, DC.Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images
  • In January, SCOTUS banned the abortion pill from mail during the pandemic.
  • It was the only medication barred from mail-in prescriptions during the pandemic, until the Biden administration lifted the ban.
  • Advocates said the SCOTUS ruling signaled the majority conservative court's will to erode Roe v. Wade.

The Biden administration just lifted a ban on mail-order abortion pills, which are used to induce a miscarriage in people who are up to 11 weeks pregnant, after the Supreme Court banned the increasingly popular abortion drug.

The ban will be lifted for the remainder of the pandemic, Politico reported.

In January, the Supreme Court voted to ban the abortion pill from mail delivery, making it the only prescription medication to have such restrictions, until today's reversal.

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In July 2020, for the first time, the FDA allowed mail order of the abortion pill on a federal level. The goal was to ensure safe abortion care during the pandemic, when Americans were being urged not to travel and to avoid in-person treatments where possible.

Though a "medication abortion" is available at clinics that are open for in-person care, that's a complicated option for people who live hundreds of miles from abortion providers - and even more so during the pandemic. Those who do take time off work to make such a trip, which the CDC advises against as COVID-19 continues to spread, are often far from their families and support network.

Getting an abortion can require unpaid time off work and driving hundreds of miles

Allison, a 27-year-old media professional in New York City, didn't plan on getting pregnant during the pandemic. As someone who never had an abortion before, she was unsure where to turn. So her friend made her an appointment at a Manhattan Planned Parenthood location, where she was given the first of two pills for a medication abortion.

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Despite her fear of contracting COVID-19, Allison said the overall experience was positive because the nurses at the clinic offered emotional support and guidance. The only downside, Allison told Insider, was balancing work with the time commitment her abortion appointment required.

"It was terrible timing because I didn't feel like I could afford to take time off. I told the people I work with what happened and that I needed some time," Allison, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy, told Insider.

"Even though they knew [I needed an abortion], I couldn't take that time off because there was too much to do [at work]," she said.

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For working parents and those who live in areas where the closest clinic is hundreds of miles away, Allison's situation would have been complicated to navigate.

In Missouri, for example, a single Planned Parenthood location is the only abortion clinic in the state, leading those who need abortions to drive across state lines to Illinois to get the care they need, NPR previously reported. Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia also have just one abortion clinic.

That's where a mail-order abortion pill could help, public health experts say.

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Poor and Black communities, who are hit hardest by COVID-19, are most affected by limits to abortion care

The Center for Reproductive Rights has identified 34 states that could cease to protect abortion rights if Roe v. Wade is overturned, most of them in the South where a high percentage of people of color live.

Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by existing anti-abortion laws, since they tend to live below the poverty line and lack access to birth control from both a geographical and financial standpoint.

These are communities already hit hard by the pandemic, and stand to be hit hardest by further limitations to abortion care.

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Campaign to reinstate the mail-in abortion pill

In January, Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson told Insider's Kimberly Leonard she had asked the Biden-Harris administration to reinstate pills-by-mail for the rest of the pandemic.

"When you think about the ways in which the Biden-Harris is building an agency and personnel strategy that is intending to center race, equity, and gender equity - and you look at the patients who are most harmed by this completely medically unnecessary requirement - those are largely people of color," McGill Johnson told Insider.

She said if President Biden "intends to have a true intersectional approach to access to abortion in the immediate" abortion-pill access through the mail should be a top priority.

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The ruling may be an omen for the future of Roe v. Wade

Kate Kelly, a human rights lawyer and co-host of abortion rights podcast Ordinary Equality, told Insider the SCOTUS ruling doesn't just heighten COVID-19 risk for people seeking abortions. She believes it's also a bad omen for the future of Roe v. Wade, a 1973 ruling which says pregnant women have the right to abortions without excessive government intervention.

"They intervened in something that would have naturally expired, because it was an order for during the pandemic," Kelly said.

"This is another reason why it's like, 'Oh, why did [SCOTUS] jump into something that would have ostensibly expired anyway, to like cut it off?' That's scary," Kelly said.

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McGill said the Supreme Court's order to stop abortion pill access by mail is "an egregious step backwards for health equity," and that the restrictions, even after the pandemic, should be permanently removed.

"At the end of the day it is medically unnecessary and we see these restrictions time and again, intended to create barriers to access and intended to shame providers, to shame patients," said McGill.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was recently appointed to the Supreme Court as Trump's nominee, wrote the January decision. Coney Barrett's SCOTUS confirmation alone sparked concerns about Roe v. Wade's future given the judge's previous opposition to abortion, Insider previously reported.

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SCOTUS has also considered taking up a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban case that has the potential to overturn Roe. The court received the initial request to hear the case hours after Coney Barrett was confirmed.

Carole Joffe, a sociologist, previously told Insider she is concerned that, if states don't protect abortion rights, and a majority conservative SCOTUS overturns Roe v. Wade, it could lead to an uptick in "underground" abortions. "What is hard enough for many women will become even harder," said Joffe, co-author of "Obstacle Course: The Everyday Struggle to Get an Abortion in America."

Allowing the abortion pill "is a very low bar, so it's troubling to see what might be coming in the future," Kelly said.

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