An Austrian doctor who prescribes abortion drugs to patients around the world is suing the United States for allegedly blocking her American patients from getting abortions by seizing their prescriptions.
Dr. Rebecca Gomperts filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Idaho on Monday, asking a judge to stop the Food and Drug Administration from taking any steps that would prevent her patients from accessing the abortion-inducing drugs.
“For many women seeking to terminate their unwanted pregnancies prior to viability, the only practical option is found on the internet,” Gomperts and her attorney Richard Hearn wrote in the lawsuit.
In many rural states, abortion providers are few and far between, Hearn said on Monday. That limits abortion access to women with the money and means to travel or those who can find a provider on the internet such as Gomperts.
One of Gomperts’ first patients was a 14-year-old girl, Hearn said.
“How many 14-year-olds can rent a car, drive down secretly to Salt Lake City or Boise, and then spend the night there and take these pills and go to a follow-up appointment and then go home? Practically, it’s just not available to poor people in states like Idaho,” Hearn said.
Women seeking abortions generally have two options: A surgical abortion where the embryo or fetus is physically removed from the womb or a medication abortion where medications are essentially used to induce a miscarriage in the first few weeks of a pregnancy.
The drugs typically used for a medication abortion, misoprostol and mifepristone, are highly regulated by the FDA and doctors in the U.S. must have a specialty license to prescribe them.
Gomperts, who splits her time between homes in Wien, Austria, and Amsterdam, the Netherlands, started an organization called Aid Access to serve women seeking first-trimester abortions in early 2018. She prescribes the abortion-inducing medications through the Aid Access website, and then the organization gives the women information on how to fill their prescriptions using a merchant prescription drug exporter based in India.
India’s laws allow the exporter to legally export small quantities of drugs for a patient’s personal use.
More than 40,000 women have contacted Aid Access since the organization began, according to the lawsuit, including roughly 37,000 women from the United States.
Of those, Gomperts has prescribed the abortion-inducing drugs to more than 7,000, including roughly 40 women in Idaho, where the lawsuit was filed.
The FDA sent Gomperts a letter in March warning her that the agency believed she was violating federal law by “introducing into interstate commerce misbranded and unapproved new drugs.”
After she received the letter, Gomperts learned the FDA had seized the abortion medications from between three and 10 of her patients. Gomperts says the FDA also blocked the transfer of money between her patients and Aid Access by blocking the patients from using companies such as Moneygram and Xoom.
She stopped providing medical abortions for women in the U.S. for almost two months after getting the letter, according to the lawsuit, but ultimately resumed the practice in May.
“This is the federal government interfering with a woman working with her doctor, and then threatening the doctor who wrote that prescription,” Hearn said
Gomperts says the FDA’s actions have created an undue burden on herself and her patients, effectively barring them from getting abortions.
The FDA has declined to comment on the case because it’s a pending lawsuit.
It’s not just the abortion-inducing drugs that the FDA is cracking down on; the federal agency has long been trying to stop the unregulated flow of medications into the U.S. Many American patients turn to online pharmacies in countries like Mexico and India because the medications are cheaper.
Hearn says the abortion-inducing drugs should be treated differently because they’re effectively the only way some women can access early-pregnancy abortions.
“It’s a stupid idea, but if you want to block drugs like insulin, that’s OK,” Hearn said. “But if you block a woman — or a 14- or 15-year-old girl — who only has a couple of weeks when she can take these pills and you seize them? That’s not only unconscionable, it’s unconstitutional.”