COMMENTARY

Mifepristone Freed of Restrictions for the Pandemic

Lindsay Dale, MD, Patricia Black, MD, and Eve Espey, MD, MPH

August 23, 2021

Since evidence shows that medication abortion is extremely safe, why is mifepristone so restricted? And should it be? Mifepristone, used with misoprostol for medication abortion for pregnancies up to 10 weeks' gestation, is highly regulated in the United States. Going back to 2000, when the Food and Drug Administration approved Mifeprex (brand name of mifepristone), its access was restricted under the FDA Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS).

REMS is an FDA drug safety program, where certain medications with serious safety concerns are subject to restrictions intended to ensure that the benefits of the medication outweigh its risks. For example, the drug vigabatrin, with a side effect of permanent vision loss, is used to treat epilepsy. The REMS for vigabatrin requires counseling on the risk of vision loss and periodic vision monitoring.

The FDA claims that rare side effects of mifepristone — heavy vaginal bleeding, severe infection, and incomplete abortion — are risks that warrant the REMS, despite the known safety of medication abortion, with less than 1% of patients requiring emergency intervention for heavy vaginal bleeding or infection. The mifepristone REMS requires that the drug is dispensed in a hospital, clinic or medical office by a certified health care provider and not in a pharmacy as is the case with most prescribed medications, and that patients must read and sign the patient agreement form in the physical presence of the dispensing physician and may not receive counseling via telemedicine, for example.

Since FDA approval over 20 years ago, much evidence shows that the REMS is unnecessary and creates a major obstacle to access. Many clinicians cannot meet the REMS requirements. Many women must travel great distances to obtain mifepristone or delay their abortion past the acceptable gestational age for medication abortion.

In spring 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued general guidance recommending use of telemedicine to limit in-person medical visits to reduce risk of exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to ensure access to medication abortion, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the FDA to suspend the requirement for in-person mifepristone dispensing.

In July 2020, a Maryland District Judge granted a preliminary injunction, preventing the FDA from enforcing the in-person dispensing requirement for the duration of the declared public health emergency, allowing telemedicine medication abortion using mail or delivery service for administration of mifepristone. All other REMS requirements remained in effect.

In January 2021, the FDA appealed, seeking to reinstate the REMS. The U.S. Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, ruled to reimpose the REMS. Following this decision, a large coalition of reproductive rights groups petitioned the Biden administration to suspend the mifepristone in-person requirement during the public health emergency of the pandemic. In April 2021, the FDA announced it would use discretion and cease to enforce the in-person dispensing requirement throughout the remainder of the public health emergency.

We applaud the FDA for doing the right thing, taking the advice of numerous scientific and advocacy groups to expand access to mifepristone by at least temporarily nullifying unnecessary and burdensome restrictions that disproportionately affect people of color; young people; and people who live in rural areas, have lower incomes, and/or who are undocumented. We join the voices of numerous colleagues and organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, our premier women's health organization, in calling for a permanent end to the mifepristone REMS.

Dale is an obstetrics and gynecology specialist in Albuquerque, N.M.; Black is an obstetrics and gynecology specialist in Albuquerque, N.M., who currently practices at the University of New Mexico Children's Psychiatric Center, and Espey is professor and chair of the department of ob.gyn. and family planning, and fellowship director at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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