Louisiana Republicans vote to criminalize possession of abortion pills

May 23, 2024

Possession of abortion pills without a prescription could soon be illegal in Louisiana after Republicans in the state Legislature passed a first-of-its-kind bill that designates the pills as dangerous controlled substances.

The state Senate passed the bill by a 29-7 vote Thursday, days after it passed the state House. It now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Jeff Landry, who is expected to sign it.

Landry, an abortion opponent, has yet to officially weigh in on the measure. But in a post on a personal social media account earlier this week, he referenced Vice President Harris’s criticism of the bill.

“You know you’re doing something right when @KamalaHarris criticizes you,” Landry wrote on the social platform X. “This bill protects expectant mothers while also allowing these drugs to be prescribed to those with a valid prescription.”

The bill will add mifepristone and misoprostol to Louisiana’s Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law, which regulates drugs that can be highly addictive such as opioids, ephedrine and antidepressants.

The bill categorizes them as Schedule IV, meaning possession would be illegal for anyone who doesn’t have a prescription or is a licensed provider. Violators would be subject to up to five years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. It would exempt from prosecution pregnant women who possess the pills “for her own consumption,” but anyone who helps women get the pills would be at risk.

Abortion rights advocates said the legislation will create a chilling effect and adds more hurdles for prescribers and pharmacists. To prescribe controlled substances, physicians in the state need a special license, and the state tracks the patient, physician and pharmacy involved in each prescription.

Lawmakers said the bill is aimed at stopping abortion drugs being used without physician oversight.

Abortion is almost entirely banned in Louisiana, meaning abortion pills are also illegal under the law. The only exceptions to the ban are if there is substantial risk of death or impairment to the mother if she continues the pregnancy or in the case of “medically futile” pregnancies, when the fetus has a fatal abnormality.

But women are still able to get the pills in the mail from providers in blue states protected by telehealth shield laws.

The bill would seemingly make it illegal for a woman to have the pills on-hand 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.

The federal government does not classify the drugs as controlled substances. They are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and research has overwhelmingly shown both pills to be safe and effective. The two-drug regimen is used in about two-thirds of all abortions nationwide.

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

Anti-abortion advocates say medication abortion is dangerous, and recently argued that point at the Supreme Court in an attempt to limit access to mifepristone.

Hundreds of doctors in the state have spoken out against the legislation, warning that it could lead to worsening outcomes in a state that has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Thomas Pressly (R), said he was motivated to act because his sister was the victim of a crime in which her then-husband secretly spiked her drink with misoprostol in 2022 to stop her pregnancy.

The original bill created the crime of “coerced criminal abortion by means of fraud,” when someone knowingly gives abortion pills to a pregnant woman without her knowledge or consent. There were few objections.

But it was later amended, with help from the powerful anti-abortion group Louisiana Right to Life, to add the provision about classifying the drugs as controlled substances.

State attorney general Liz Murrill (R) wrote on X that mifepristone and misoprostol “are increasingly being shipped from outside our state and country to women and girls in our state.”

The legislation “does NOT prohibit these drugs from being prescribed and dispensed in Louisiana for legal and legitimate reasons,” she added.