The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expanded access to abortion through medication by allowing certified retail drug stores including large chains and mail-order companies to dispense the abortion pill mifepristone.
Before the federal agency on Tuesday finalized a rule change, mifepristone was tightly controlled and could only be dispensed by specially certified clinics or doctors, and by a few mail-order pharmacies.
The mail-order option wasn't even available until 2021, when the FDA allowed telemedicine prescription and mail-order delivery to overcome in-person restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mifepristone, combined with a second drug called misoprostol, has been used to induce an abortion up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy. Under the new regulation, prescription is still required to obtain the pills.
The latest data from the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights organization, indicated that medication abortion accounted for 53 percent of all facility-based abortions in the United States in 2020.
A previous report found medication abortion accounted for 39 percent of all abortions in 2017, indicating a fast growth of pill use.
"Under the Mifepristone REMS (risk evaluation and mitigation strategy) Program, as modified, Mifeprex and its approved generic can be dispensed by certified pharmacies or by or under the supervision of a certified prescriber," the FDA stated on its website Tuesday.
Abortion rights activists said that the drug, available since 2000, has proven to be safe, effective and without risk of overdose or addiction. It's available over the counter in some countries such as Mexico and India.
Planned Parenthood President Alexis Johnson called the FDA's decision "a step in the right direction for health equity".
"Being able to access your prescribed medication abortion through the mail or to pick it up in person from a pharmacy like any other prescription is a game changer for people trying to access basic health care," Johnson said in a statement.
Anti-abortion groups condemned the decision.
"The Biden administration has once again proved that it values abortion industry profits over women's safety and unborn children's lives. Abortion activists want to turn every post office and pharmacy into an abortion business, and the Biden FDA is a willing participant," Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement.
However, access to the abortion pills is restricted in more than 10 states where abortion is banned after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade to overturn the constitutional right to abortion.
Guttmacher Institute reported that 16 of those states have introduced legislation to ban or limit availability to medication abortion.
But women in states where abortion is banned can get the medicine from a pharmacy by simply crossing the state border to another state, abortion activists say.