Boxes of the drug mifepristone sit on a shelf at the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on March 16, 2022. Lawsuits have been filed in West Virginia and North Carolina challenging the states' restrictions on the use of abortion pills.

Medication abortion, a two-step regimen, is used in more than half of pregnancy terminations in the United States.

Credit: AP Photo/Allen G. Breed, File

Abortion rights activists notched a short-term victory Friday when the U.S. Supreme Court decided to continue to allow access to the abortion drug mifepristone as a lawsuit over its approval continues, but Georgians on both sides of the issue expect the uncertain situation to continue to evolve.

“This decision extends an order pausing dangerous lower court orders that would severely restrict access to mifepristone and threaten the FDA’s science-based drug approval process,” said Georgia Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler in a statement following the decision. “But make no mistake — mifepristone’s approval is very much still in jeopardy, and in the midst of the abortion access crisis, this medication must be protected.”

Claire Bartlett, executive director of the anti-abortion Georgia Life Alliance, characterized the drug as dangerous and untested, and she predicted an eventual win.

“Our first concern is for the health and safety of women,” she said. “Restriction of mifepristone will be a win for women and their babies, who are preyed upon by the abortion industry.”

Mifepristone is one of two drugs used to induce a medication abortion, which overtook surgical abortion as the most common method in 2020. The pills were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000 and have been in wide use since then.

With the high court’s decision, Georgia women can receive the pills up to six weeks into their pregnancies, but with cases working their way through court and the potential for a stricter ban in neighboring Florida, the future of timely abortion access for Georgia patients remains uncertain.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation earlier this month instituting a six-week abortion ban, but the law cannot go into effect pending a state Supreme Court decision on a previously passed abortion bill.

In 2019, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed the state’s own restrictive abortion law, which, like Florida’s, forbids abortion in most cases after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, typically around the sixth week of pregnancy.

Abortion rights proponents say many women do not even know they are pregnant by six weeks. Doctors measure pregnancy from the first day of the mother’s last menstrual period, so a woman can be around two weeks pregnant at the moment of conception.

Georgia’s law remains in effect as it faces a court challenge. Abortion rights advocates say the law needs a redo because it was unconstitutional when it was passed. Supporters of the ban say it’s fair because the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruled last year that Roe v. Wade was wrong all along.

For women living in the southern part of Georgia, clinics in Tallahassee or Jacksonville represent the closest available places to receive an abortion, and that range extends northward for women seeking an abortion after six weeks.

The closest clinic to a woman in Decatur County in the southwest corner of the state is today about 40 miles away in the Tallahassee area, but if the Florida law went into effect, the closest clinic serving those beyond six weeks of pregnancy would be just over 450 miles away, according to data from Caitlin Myers, an economics professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.

“It’s made what should be a medical option for all women hellishly hard to receive, particularly for the rural Georgia women,” said Melita Easters, executive director for the Georgia WIN List, a political action committee aimed at electing women Democrats who support abortion rights. “And what you have to think about is half of Georgia’s counties do not have an OB/GYN. And so that means women who might be pregnant have further to go just to receive normal medical care, not to mention the ultrasound to determine how far along a pregnancy might be.”

Data suggests that Georgia’s ban has preceded a decrease in the number of abortions in the state.

study from the Society of Family Planning released this month found the average number of abortions performed in Georgia each month fell by around 40% after the Dobbs decision. Between April and May, the average number of abortions performed was 4,235, which declined to 2,558 between July and December for an average monthly decrease of 1,822 and a total decrease of 10,930.


The politics

Georgia Congressman Andrew Clyde was among 69 Republican members of Congress who signed on to an amicus brief arguing against allowing mifepristone. The members said the pills were not properly tested by the FDA in 2000 and are unsafe.

“The FDA’s unlawful approval and deregulation of chemical abortion drugs subverts Congress’ public policy considerations and safeguards for patient safety,” the group wrote, urging justices to “protect women and girls from the harms of chemical abortion drugs.”

Both of Georgia’s senators and all five of its Democratic U.S. Representatives signed onto another brief arguing that the FDA’s approval process was thorough and overseen by the Legislative branch.

The brief, signed by 253 members of Congress, says the attempt to overturn the agency’s determination has “no basis in law, threatens the Congressionally mandated drug approval process, and poses a serious health risk to pregnant individuals by making abortion more difficult to access—when access has already been seriously eroded in the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.”

A January poll from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests that instituting more severe abortion bans may be a tough political sell in Georgia. The poll found that 49% of Georgians say it should be easier to get an abortion. Another 24% said it should stay about the same, and only 21% said it should be more difficult.

Easters predicts new attempts to reduce abortion access will steer more women away from Republicans in future elections.

“We don’t know what the Georgia Supreme Court will do based on the hearings they held in March on the legality of the current six-week ban in Georgia, but I believe the impact of all of this uncertainty about abortion and where Georgia stands, is it legal or is it not, what does this ruling mean, or that ruling mean, is making women far more aware of how dramatically different their medical autonomy and medical options are under this bill,” she said.

“A lot of women are going to be really effective in how they support candidates, knock doors and write checks over the next twelve months,” she added.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.