The Supreme Court has put off a decision in a closely watched case over the abortion pill mifepristone, extending a legal freeze that was set to expire Wednesday by two days.
The extension, ordered by Justice Samuel Alito, gives the high court more time to decide its course of action after a flurry of contradictory lower court decisions prompted an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court by the Department of Justice.
An administrative stay acts like a legal holding pattern, maintaining the status quo until a decision is reached. The stay ordered by Alito was initially set to expire at 11:59 pm Eastern Time on Wednesday, but now extends through Friday.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk issued a preliminary ruling invalidating the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the pill, called mifepristone, which has been available in the U.S. since 2000. Shortly after, a federal judge in Washington state ordered the FDA to maintain access to the pill in the 17 states where Democratic attorneys general had brought forward a separate case.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed both orders last week, blocking Kacsmaryk’s suspension but permitting other limits on its use. That decision, from a panel of three judges, would rescind updates to mifepristone’s labeling that have allowed prescribing by mail and use through 10 weeks of pregnancy.
The court battle stems from a lawsuit brought last year by the Alliance of Hippocratic Medicine to Kacsmaryk’s court in Amarillo, Texas. Acting on behalf of conservative anti-abortion groups and doctors, the group sued the FDA and mifepristone manufacturer Danco Laboratories on claims the regulator had improperly approved it and overlooked safety risks.
In response, the FDA has argued that many studies and decades of research have repeatedly proven mifepristone to be safe and effective.
“FDA approved Mifeprex more than 20 years ago based on a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence available and determined that it was safe and effective for its indicated use — medical termination of early pregnancy,” the agency said in a recent statement.
Biotechnology and pharmaceutical executives, as well as former FDA officials and academic experts, have raised concerns that the case could undermine the agency’s authority over prescription drug approvals.