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FDA announcement shakes up reproductive health debate

The shift may seem like a minor tweak to a medication label, but yesterday's announcement from the FDA is likely to make a big difference.
The abortion drug Mifepristone is pictured. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty)
The abortion drug Mifepristone is pictured.
When it comes to abortion rights, Donald Trump's controversial comments to MSNBC's Chris Matthews generated all kinds of attention, and for good reason. The Republican presidential frontrunner called for banning abortions and punishing women who seek them, before walking back most of what he'd said.
But as that news was unfolding, there was an unrelated announcement related to abortion rights that was, as a substantive matter, arguably more important, though it caused less of a stir. Irin Carmon reported:

The federal Food and Drug Administration has made a major change in how it labels medication that induces abortion, robbing anti-abortion lawmakers of a key tool they have had to limit access. [...] According to the manufacturer, since its approval, more than 2.75 million women in the United States have taken mifepristone to end a pregnancy early in its gestation, choosing it over "surgical" abortion that involves dilation and curettage. The FDA's new labeling for mifepristone approves using it for 21 more days into pregnancy -- from 49 days gestation to 70 -- and lowers the overall dosage, making it less expensive and reducing side effects.

The shift may seem like a minor tweak, but yesterday's announcement is likely to make a big difference.
Mifepristone is not a new drug, but the FDA's guidelines about the drug's use have now changed in important ways. As The New Republic's Gwyneth Kelly explained, when the medication was approved nearly 16 years ago, the mifepristone label "specified that women could be no more than 49 days pregnant when taking it, and that they needed to take 600 mg at a doctor's office."
In practice, however, doctors soon realized that the guidelines were excessive, and mifepristone was just as effective at a lower dosage when taken at home. It created a gap between what the label specified and what medical professionals deemed necessary, and anti-abortion policymakers in some states -- including Ohio and Texas -- exploited that gap, requiring doctors to follow the out-of-date requirements.
The point of yesterday's announcement from the FDA was to close the gap by updating the label, making it more accurate, and expanding its possible use for more women.
The right is already looking for ways to adapt, and as Carmon's report added, Republican policymakers in Arizona are moving forward with legislation to require physicians to follow the old, out-of-date guidelines, which conservatives like better.
David Brown, an attorney at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told MSNBC about the Arizona proposal, "It would be the first law that I'm aware of that would specifically require doctors to practice 20th century medicine in the 21st century."