US judge blocks some North Carolina restrictions on abortion pill

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in Idaho's strict abortion ban

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) -A federal judge has struck down parts of a North Carolina law restricting patients' access to the abortion pill mifepristone, which has become the subject of legal battles nationwide.

Chief U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles on Tuesday struck down the state's requirements that mifepristone be prescribed only by doctors and only in person, as well as a requirement that patients have an in-person follow-up appointment. She said the requirements conflicted with federal law because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) previously considered and rejected them.

The ruling comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case brought by anti-abortion groups that, if successful, would reimpose those same restrictions nationwide.

At the same time, Eagles upheld other North Carolina restrictions, including a requirement that patients have an in-person consultation before taking the pill and undergo an ultrasound and blood test, saying those requirements had never been explicitly rejected by the FDA.

The Republican leaders of North Carolina's legislature intervened in the case to defend the restrictions after Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, said he would not do so. They did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"Republican legislators enacted the law to control, not protect, women," Stein said in a statement. "I'll keep fighting to protect women's freedoms."

Plaintiff Amy Bryant, the doctor who brought the lawsuit challenging the North Carolina law, said in a statement that she was "pleased" that the court found the state cannot "second-guess or interfere with the FDA's expert judgment."

Mifepristone is the first part of a two-drug medicine used for medication abortion, which is approved by the FDA to terminate pregnancy in the first 10 weeks. Medication abortion accounted for more than 60% of U.S. abortions last year.

The case now before the Supreme Court began with a lawsuit challenging the FDA's approval of the drug by anti-abortion groups, who last year won an order from U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Amarillo, Texas, banning mifepristone altogether.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later narrowed the order to reinstate the in-person and doctor prescribing requirements, which the FDA originally imposed but later lifted. That order is on hold while the Supreme Court considers an appeal from the Democratic President Joe Biden's administration.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Aurora Ellis)