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Doctors in Louisiana are alarmed over how the state may reclassify 2 abortion pills


Louisiana's legislature is debating a new move in the state-by-state fight over reproductive medicine. A bill would place new restrictions on two drugs used in abortions and for other conditions. The state would reclassify these drugs as controlled, dangerous substances. Here's Rosemary Westwood of WWNO in New Orleans.

ROSEMARY WESTWOOD, BYLINE: The proposed law would make mifepristone and misoprostol Schedule 4 drugs in Louisiana. Without a proper prescription, you could face up to 10 years in prison. The change was introduced by Republican State Senator Thomas Pressly. At a committee hearing, he had trouble remembering the name of one of the drugs.


THOMAS PRESSLY: Yeah, so it's misoprostol and...


PRESSLY: Sorry, go ahead.

PRESSLY HERRING: Mifepristone.

PRESSLY: Mifepristone.

PRESSLY HERRING: Yeah. Misoprostol.

PRESSLY: So there's two drugs that are...

WESTWOOD: Louisiana already has a near-total abortion ban, so this change is aimed at stemming the flow of abortion pills ordered online into the state, according to Sarah Zagorski with Louisiana Right To Life.

SARAH ZAGORSKI: We've had pregnancy centers email us with many stories of minors getting access to this medication. That's just going to create an epidemic in Louisiana of minors and women and putting the public health at risk.

WESTWOOD: The bill exempts pregnant women even if they possess the drugs and plan to take them. But Louisiana doctors are alarmed. More than 250 signed a letter to Senator Pressly opposing the move. One was Dr. Nicole Freehill, an OB-GYN in New Orleans.

NICOLE FREEHILL: It's just really jaw-dropping. Almost a day doesn't go by that I don't utilize one or both of these medications.

WESTWOOD: Freehill says they're used for so many things besides abortion - for miscarriages.

FREEHILL: For induction of labor. For preparing the cervix for different procedures in the uterus, such as insertion of IUD.

WESTWOOD: The bill also makes it a crime to give pregnant women abortion medications without her knowledge or consent. Zagorski, with Louisiana Right To Life, says that's a form of drug abuse. And abuse is one of the factors that the Drug Enforcement Agency and individual states use to decide whether drugs should be listed as dangerous controlled substances. But Dr. Jennifer Avegno, a New Orleans ER doc, says abuse is about dependence and addiction.

JENNIFER AVEGNO: There is no risk of someone getting hooked on misoprostol.

WESTWOOD: Other Schedule 4 drugs include narcotics, stimulants and painkillers.

AVEGNO: To classify these medications in the same vein as Xanax, Valium, Darvocet is not only scientifically incorrect but a real concern for limiting access to these drugs.

WESTWOOD: Dr. Daniel Grossman is a reproductive health researcher at UC San Francisco.

DANIEL GROSSMAN: It's not surprising that states are trying everything they can to try to restrict these drugs, but this is certainly a novel approach.

WESTWOOD: Opponents say reclassifying these drugs could lead to dangerous medical delays. Dr. Freehill says pharmacists could be afraid to dispense the drugs to patients having miscarriages.

FREEHILL: They could be sitting there bleeding, increasing their risk that they would have a dangerous amount of blood loss.

WESTWOOD: And doctors know that controlled substances are tracked in state databases.

FREEHILL: Could I be investigated for my use of misoprostol? I don't know.

WESTWOOD: Elizabeth Ling, a reproductive rights attorney, says the tougher prison penalties are meant to scare and disrupt underground networks of support for patients seeking the pills.

ELIZABETH LING: Is my friend who is simply just providing me emotional support going to somehow be punished for doing that?

WESTWOOD: Pressly is pushing ahead to pass the bill before the legislature adjourns in June. For NPR News, I'm Rosemary Westwood in New Orleans.


INSKEEP: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WWNO and KFF Health News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.