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An Update on Abortion Pills From the World Health Organization Undermines How the U.S. Regulates Them

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The WHO has considered mifepristone and misoprostol ‘essential medicines’ for more than a decade.

Abortion pills should be widely available and affordable, and don’t need to be dispensed by highly trained specialists or in specialty facilities, according to a World Health Organization update published last week.

Abortions induced by taking pills are the safest type available. The recommended regimen is two pills, containing the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol. The pills work best on early-stage pregnancies, around 10 weeks’ gestation or less. The WHO has considered mifepristone and misoprostol “essential medicines” since 2005, but in the recent update, WHO experts decided that they had enough scientific evidence to strike the caveat saying the medications require “close medical supervision.”

The change puts the United States’ strict regulations around abortion pills even further out of step with international guidelines, activists and scientists say. The WHO update isn’t legally binding, but many countries take the WHO essential medicines list seriously, so it may make mifepristone and misoprostol more readily available worldwide. In the U.S., however, not much is expected to change.

“It does improve the situation for everyone in the world because it increases the likelihood of nations making these drugs available,” says Sara Ainsworth, legal director for If/When/How, a legal advocacy group that works on reproductive rights. In the U.S., however, she says: “We have political, not scientific, restrictions, placed on how prescribers can distribute the drug mifepristone. Unfortunately, the way that politics work, I don’t know if the shift will mean that change [to how the U.S. regulates mifepristone] happens sooner.”

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