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Bill classifying abortion pills as 'controlled dangerous substance' OK'd in Louisiana

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Abortion is already illegal in Louisiana, but some state officials there have been frustrated by residents who go online to order pills to induce an abortion. Louisiana lawmakers have voted to classify two drugs as dangerous controlled substances.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The new law is expected to make it harder to access and prescribe these pills, and it is the first of its kind in the country.

MARTIN: Rosemary Westwood at member station WWNO in New Orleans is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Rosemary.

ROSEMARY WESTWOOD, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So why this decision to reclassify these drugs as dangerous and controlled substances?

WESTWOOD: State officials have been frustrated by residents who go online to order pills to induce an abortion. To crack down on that, they've opted for this designation to make them harder to get. The experts I've spoken with tell me that Louisiana has the right to designate a drug by making a general finding that it's a public health risk, as they've done here. We don't know if this will be challenged in the courts, though.

So some controlled substances are illegal, like heroin, and others have various medical uses but carry a risk of addiction, so drugs like Xanax and opioids and psychiatric meds. These are known as scheduled drugs, or controlled substances, and so they're a little harder to get on purpose. Doctors need a special license to prescribe them and they're tracked in state databases. And if you have these drugs without a prescription, you can face thousands of dollars in fines - and jail time.

MARTIN: So what are state lawmakers saying about this move? And the reason I ask that is that these drugs would not seem to meet those two criteria. They are not addicting, and they do have a legitimate medical use. So what are they saying about this?

WESTWOOD: Well, Republicans and anti-abortion rights groups say this is necessary to keep women and girls safe, to discourage them from getting the pills mailed from out of state or passing them along to each other. The bill's sponsor was Republican State Senator Thomas Pressly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS PRESSLY: It will be an important step to stop a dangerous industry that threatens the health of women.

WESTWOOD: But remember, these medications are still legal for other uses, so doctors are worried that reclassifying them as controlled substances is going to make these medications harder to get. And that could delay care.

MARTIN: Say more about these other medical uses. Can you give some examples?

WESTWOOD: Yeah. They're used every day in miscarriages, to treat hemorrhage after childbirth, to insert an IUD. And that's why almost 300 doctors across the state sent a letter pleading with legislators not to do this. Under this law, doctors will be tracked in a database every time they write a prescription for mifepristone or misoprostol, and pharmacists - I mean, in Louisiana, some have already been more hesitant to dispense these drugs. Dr. William Kirchain is a pharmacist with Xavier University. He says these pills are not like other schedule IV drugs like tramadol or Valium. The main difference is mifepristone and misoprostol, as you said, are not addictive.

WILLIAM KIRCHAIN: They are certainly outliers. They really don't have any relationship to the other drugs in schedule IV.

WESTWOOD: But he says Louisiana does have the power to reclassify the drugs in this way, which means that other states could potentially try to do this, too.

MARTIN: So what happens now?

WESTWOOD: Well, this law will go into effect. The governor still has to sign it, but he's said he supports it. And it's not clear if it will stop pregnant women ordering the pills because they are specifically exempted from prosecution. Anyone else caught with these medications, though, without a valid prescription could face up to 10 years in prison.

MARTIN: That's Rosemary Westwood at WWNO in New Orleans. Rosemary, thank you.

WESTWOOD: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.