WASHINGTON — South Dakota’s Republican governor vowed Sunday to ban mail-order abortion pills, but said women shouldn’t be prosecuted for seeking them.
In apparent defiance of Justice Department legal advice after the Supreme Court last week struck down constitutional abortion protections for women, Kristi Noem has indicated in national television interviews that she will implement a plan approved by state lawmakers to restrict pills. The majority ruling by the court’s conservative justices on Friday triggered abortion bans in South Dakota and elsewhere.
But Noem said doctors, not their patients, would likely be prosecuted for knowing about violations of what would be one of the toughest abortion pill laws in the United States.
“I don’t think women should ever be prosecuted,” she said. “I don’t believe there should be any punishment for women, ever, who are in a crisis or have an unplanned pregnancy.”
At issue is mail-order or so-called telemedicine abortion pills, which have been on the rise in the country since 2000, when the Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone – the main drug used in medical abortions.
More than 90% of abortions take place during the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, and more than half are now performed with pills, not surgery, according to data compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group who supports abortion rights. Abortion pills are expected to grow in demand as more than half of states are likely to take steps to ban abortions following the Supreme Court ruling.
Noem, a staunch opponent of abortion rights who faces re-election in November and is mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, called the distribution of abortion pills dangerous and called a special session to draw up new laws.
“These are very dangerous medical procedures,” Noem said, referring to abortion pills. “We don’t think he should be available because it’s a dangerous situation for these people without being medically supervised by a doctor.”
In a state where Republicans hold supermajorities in both state houses, South Dakota lawmakers have floated proposals that would also make it harder for women to get abortions out of state. South Dakota voters rejected outright bans in 2006 and 2008, and abortion rights advocates are bracing for a similar referendum on abortion access.
In a statement Friday, President Joe Biden’s Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department will protect abortion providers and those seeking abortions in states where it is legal and will “work with other branches of the federal government that seek to use their legal authorities to protect and preserve access to reproductive care.
“In particular, the FDA has approved the use of the drug mifepristone,” he added. “States cannot ban mifepristone due to disagreement with the FDA’s expert judgment on its safety and efficacy.”
The South Dakota law, passed in March, requires women who want an abortion to make three separate visits to a doctor in order to take abortion pills and clarifies that women in the state cannot obtain the pills through a telemedicine consultation. The law was suspended after a federal judge ruled in February that it “places an undue burden on a person’s right to seek an abortion.”
Two drugs are needed. The first, mifepristone, blocks a hormone needed to maintain pregnancy. A second drug, misoprostol, taken one to two days later, empties the uterus. Both drugs are available as generics and are also used to treat other conditions.
Last year, the FDA lifted a longstanding requirement that women obtain abortion pills in person. Federal regulations now also allow mail to be delivered nationwide. Despite this, approximately 19 states have passed laws requiring a medical clinician to be physically present when abortion pills are administered to a patient.
South Dakota is one of them, joining several states, including Texas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma, where Republicans have moved to further restrict access to abortion pills lately. month.
Part of the South Dakota law, which will go into effect in July, contains a section that does not depend on federal courts: increasing the sentence to a felony for anyone who prescribes abortion drugs without a license from the South Dakota Board of Medical examiners and osteopaths.
A broader court decision is pending following the Supreme Court ruling.
Noem has spoken on ABC’s “This Week” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”