WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court intervened in an Oklahoma abortion case Thursday to seek an opinion from the Oklahoma Supreme Court about the practical effect of a state law restricting the use of abortion-inducing drugs.
The nation's high court asked the state's highest court to determine whether a 2011 Oklahoma law effectively bars the use of drugs to end pregnancies, including ones in which the embryo implants outside the uterus.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down the 2011 law, which sought to ban “off-label'' uses of abortion-inducing drugs.
However, it wasn't clear Thursday whether the U.S. Supreme Court would ever get to the legal question of banning abortion-drug protocols that weren't approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as the high court's first concern was whether the law effectively banned all abortions using medication.
The Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, which successfully challenged the law, argued that the law did place a broad ban on abortions — including in cases of life-threatening pregnancies — using medications. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt disagrees on that key point, saying the law doesn't prohibit all drug-induced abortions.
The state's high court did not provide an analysis of that issue before striking down the law as unconstitutional.
The U.S. Supreme Court is seeking that analysis now before deciding how it will approach the case.
The justices took no action Thursday on a separate Oklahoma abortion case about a law that would require women to undergo an ultrasound test before getting an abortion.
Effect of state law
The FDA-approved protocol for RU-486, also known as mifepristone, combines that drug with a dose of misoprostol for abortion.
However, according to the Oklahoma coalition of abortion rights groups, the state law doesn't allow the use of misoprostol for abortions because it is an off-label use — that is, the FDA had not approved it specifically for abortion.
Moreover, the groups said, physicians wanting to avoid “invasive and risky surgery'' frequently end ectopic pregnancies with an injection of methotrexate, but that use is off-label.
In his brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, Pruitt said the state law did not ban the use of misoprostol for abortions.
“Since the approved protocol for Mifeprex — the only protocol the FDA has approved for terminating a pregnancy with medication — requires the use of misoprostol, the Oklahoma law does not ban the use of misoprostol as part of that protocol,” Pruitt argued.
In an order Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court if the 2011 law prohibits the use of misoprostol to induce abortions, including the use of misoprostol in conjunction with mifepristone; and whether it prohibits the use of methotrexate to treat ectopic pregnancies.