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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane federal judge rules abortion drug must remain available in 17 states and D.C. despite contrary appeals court action

The Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse in Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A Spokane federal judge’s ruling maintaining access to one of two medications used to cause an abortion remains in place despite an appellate ruling in another part of the country.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice in Spokane issued a six-page ruling Thursday afternoon clarifying that his order last week permitting access to mifepristone in 17 states and the District of Columbia, based on rules approved by the Food and Drug Administration in January, was still in effect. Earlier Thursday, a panel of judges for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, presiding over a case brought in Texas seeking to block access to the drug, restricted its use to within the first seven weeks of a pregnancy and prohibited its distribution through the mail.

Those restrictions go further than the rules Rice put in place for the states that sought legal review. The coalition was led by Washington and Oregon.

Rice, in his order, wrote that his protection remained in place “irrespective of the Northern District of Texas Court ruling or the Fifth Circuit’s anticipated ruling,” in a decision that was lauded by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

“The restrictions imposed by the Fifth Circuit’s radical decision do not impair access to mifepristone in the … states that are a part of our coalition,” Ferguson said in a statement. “The Washington injunction is unmistakably clear: No changes to the status quo in our states – period. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling does nothing to change Judge Rice’s order, and that became even clearer today.”

The contradictory rulings in the jurisdictions almost guarantee the issue of access to the drug, which has been widely used to achieve abortions since it was first approved by the FDA in 2000, will go before the U.S. Supreme Court. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland indicated in a statement Thursday, after the 5th Circuit ruling, that the Biden administration would take the issue to the nation’s highest court.

“We will be seeking emergency relief from the Supreme Court to defend the FDA’s scientific judgment and protect Americans’ access to safe and effective reproductive care,” Garland said in the statement.