Retail pharmacies in the US can dispense the abortion pill mifepristone for the first time, under a new rule change by the Biden administration.
Patients currently obtain mifepristone – part of a two-drug regimen that is safe and effective in inducing abortion – in person from a health provider.
A prescription is still required under the new rule, but patients can now pick up the pill in-store or by mail order.
The move could significantly expand access to abortion through medication.
Abortion pills have become more sought after in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning the federal right to abortion, with several states banning or sharply restricting access to abortion.
More than half of US abortions are already done with pills rather than by surgery, according to the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.
In December 2021, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had said it would permanently lift the requirement for patients to obtain a prescription in person via a healthcare provider, as part of its pandemic-driven move toward telemedicine.
On Tuesday, the FDA updated its website with the new requirements, saying the drug “can be dispensed by certified pharmacies or by or under the supervision of a certified prescriber”.
Danco Laboratories and GenBioPro, the two US companies who make the drug, confirmed in separate statements that the agency had informed them of its decision.
The move has been hailed as “an important step” forward by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“Although the FDA’s announcement today will not solve access issues for every person seeking abortion care, it will allow more patients who need mifepristone for medication abortion additional options to secure this vital drug,” the organisation said in a statement.
Mifepristone is taken in combination with a second drug called misoprostol, typically taken within 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy to induce what is known as medication abortion. Misoprostol, which is commonly used for miscarriage management, is not a restricted drug and can easily be obtained at pharmacies via prescription.
Pharmacies – from large chains to corner drugstores – can now apply for certification to distribute mifepristone, which will allow them to directly service customers with a prescription from a certified prescriber. Drug chains CVS and Walgreens have both said they are reviewing the new requirements.
But the political landmines surrounding abortion are likely to influence whether or not, and where, pharmacies will offer the pill.
Women in the more than dozen states where abortion has been banned will also likely need to travel to other states to obtain medication abortion.