Tennessee Governor Signs Bill Regulating Medication Abortions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee will soon strictly regulate the dispensing of abortion pills, including imposing harsh penalties on doctors who violate them, under a law recently signed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

The measure, which Lee signed Thursday, will take effect Jan. 1, 2023. Once enacted, a clinician will be required to be physically present when abortion pills are administered to a patient, though federal regulations now allow delivery by mail across the country.

The issue has become even more important as the US Supreme Court appears poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade from 1973, as suggested via a recently leaked draft opinion. Notably, Tennessee is among 13 states with a so-called trigger law that would make abortion illegal if Roe were repealed.

To date, 19 states have placed strict restrictions on access to medical abortion. Under the Tennessee version, delivery of abortion pills through the mail would be prohibited and anyone who wanted to use abortion pills would have to visit a doctor in advance and then return to pick up the pills.

Medicines can only be dispensed by qualified doctors, which would include prohibiting pharmacists from doing so. Violators would face a Class E felony and a fine of up to $50,000.

However, according to abortion law experts, it is an open question whether states can restrict access to abortion pills in the wake of the FDA’s decision.

“The general rule is that federal law trumps conflicting state law,” Laura Hermer, a professor at Mitchell Hamline Law School in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently told The Associated Press.

No lawsuit has been filed against Tennessee’s newly enacted restrictions.

Meanwhile, medical societies have long opposed the in-person requirement, including the American Medical Association, which said the restriction offers no clear benefit to patients.

The use of abortion pills has increased in the US since 2000, when the Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone, the main drug used in medical abortions. More than half of abortions in the US are now performed with pills, rather than surgery, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Two medications are required. The first, mifepristone, blocks a hormone needed to maintain a pregnancy. A second drug, misoprostol, taken a day or two later, empties the uterus. Both drugs are available as generics and are also used to treat other conditions.

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