Louisiana moves to criminalize possession of abortion pills

May 15, 2024

Louisiana could soon become the first state to criminalize possession without a prescription of mifepristone and misoprostol, the two drugs used to induce a medicated abortion.  

The move opens a new front in the fight over abortion pills and could threaten to further restrict access in a state that bans almost all abortions.  

It’s the latest attempt by anti-abortion politicians in Louisiana to control access to one of the most common methods of abortion in the country. It comes as the Supreme Court is deliberating a case from anti-abortion doctors seeking to limit access to mifepristone. 

Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature added a last-minute amendment that classifies the drugs as controlled substances to a state Senate bill that would create the crime of “coerced criminal abortion by means of fraud” — where someone knowingly gives abortion pills to a pregnant woman without her knowledge or consent. 

The underlying bill was sponsored by state Sen. Thomas Pressly (R). 

The amendment added the drugs to Louisiana’s Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law, which regulates drugs that can be highly addictive like opioids, ephedrine and antidepressants.  

The amendment would criminalize possession for anyone who doesn’t have a prescription or is a licensed provider, and subject violators to up to five years in prison. It would exempt from prosecution pregnant women who possess the pills “for her own consumption,” but anyone who helps her get the pills would be at risk.  

The amendment would also seemingly make it illegal for a woman to have the pills on hand even if she isn’t pregnant and imminently planning to take them, a practice known as “advance provision” that’s become increasingly popular in states with abortion bans.  

Louisiana already bans surgical and medication abortions except to save a patient’s life or because a pregnancy is “medically futile.” Lawmakers last week rejected a bill that would have added exceptions for cases of rape and incest. 

In an open letter to Pressly, a group of more than 200 Louisiana doctors strongly decried the amendment. 

“Neither mifepristone nor misoprostol have been shown to have any potential for abuse, dependence, public health risk, nor high rates of adverse side effects,” they wrote.  

“Adding a safe, medically indicated drug for miscarriage management … to a Controlled Substance Schedule creates the false perception that these are dangerous drugs that require additional regulation,” the letter noted.  

The amended bill has already cleared the Senate and will be put up for a final vote in the Louisiana House before June 3.  

Coerced abortion is already a crime in Louisiana, but state Rep. Mandie Landry (D) told The Hill nobody objected to legislation that would make it apply to abortion pills as well, especially because the issue was so personal for Pressly. 

During a Senate hearing last month, Pressly’s sister Catherine Herring described how her then-husband secretly put an abortion pill in her drink in 2022. Doctors were able to stop the process, but her child was born prematurely with developmental issues. 

The former husband was only sentenced to 180 days in jail. Under Pressly’s bill, a perpetrator would face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $75,000 fine. 

Landry said the addition of the amendment, which was written with the help of Louisiana Right to Life and added after the Senate passed the bill, “blindsided” Democrats.  

In a statement after the bill advanced in the House, Pressly said the amendment was needed because abortion drugs are being “weaponized and are a risk to the public health.” 

“I recognize that there are legitimate medical uses other than elective abortion for these drugs. Louisiana law is clear that if abortion-inducing drugs are used for purposes other than elective abortion, they are legal for use. The medical community is well-versed with using controlled substances in the course of their medical practice,” Pressly said.  

Abortion rights advocates said the legislation will create a chilling effect and make it harder for women to access legitimately safe medications.  

Misoprostol especially has wide-ranging applications in reproductive health including for labor induction, to soften the cervix during surgical procedures and medical management of miscarriage. It’s also on the World Health Organization Model List of Essential Medicines.

“It is an attempt to put both misoprostol and mifepristone back under lock and key,” said Kirsten Moore, director of the Expanding Medication Abortion Access Project. “It is just going to create more burden and chaos in the health care delivery system. And that’s going to fall not just on people who are seeking abortion care, but also people who are pregnant and want to be and are trying to finish out their pregnancy, doing everything the doctor wants them to do.”