Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Senate bill would classify abortion pills as controlled dangerous substances in Louisiana

Boxes of the drug mifepristone sit on a shelf at the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on March 16, 2022.
Allen G. Breed
Boxes of the drug mifepristone sit on a shelf at the West Alabama Women's Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on March 16, 2022. Louisiana lawmakers have advanced a bill to add mifepristone and misoprostol — the two drugs used to induce an abortion — to the list of controlled substances in the state.

Louisiana lawmakers are considering adding mifepristone and misoprostol — the two drugs used to induce an abortion — to the list of controlled dangerous substances in the state, creating penalties of up to 10 years of prison time for anyone caught with the drugs.

It’s the latest move by anti-abortion politicians trying to control access to abortion pills, which people are ordering online, shipping into the state and using to end their pregnancies, despite Louisiana’s near-total abortion ban.

If passed, the law could be the first of its kind. Two lawyers with expertise in abortion laws contacted by WWNO and WRKF said they were not aware of any other state that has classified abortion medications as controlled substances.

The proposed law, Senate Bill 276, appears to target people who might obtain abortion medications in order to distribute them to pregnant people. But it could also make the medications harder to get for people who need them for miscarriage treatments or other reproductive health care.

Louisiana’s current abortion ban makes it a crime to provide an abortion, including by giving someone abortion pills. But this bill would also criminalize simply possessing the pills without a prescription under the state’s Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law.

The bill would also add stiff criminal penalties for anyone who orders abortion pills online as a precaution in advance of a pregnancy, something called “advance provision," which has become increasingly popular in states with abortion bans.

But it includes a specific exemption for pregnant women who have the pills and intend to use them to induce an abortion.

Mifepristone and misoprostol are widely used in abortions and for miscarriage treatment, with expansive safety records, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Republican Sen. Thomas Pressly of Caddo Parish is the bill’s author. He worked with Louisiana Right to Life to draft the bill.

It would create penalties of one to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines for possession of mifepristone or misoprostol.

By classifying the medications as Schedule IV drugs, alongside Valium and Xanax, Pressly’s new rules would also criminalize the distribution or manufacture, or the possession with intent to distribute or manufacture, mifepristone or misoprostol with up to 10 years in prison and $15,000 in fines.

The changes passed out of the House Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday as amendments to Pressly’s bill that would create the crime of “coerced criminal abortion” — where someone knowingly gives abortion pills to a pregnant woman to cause or attempt to cause an abortion without her knowledge or consent.

Pressly introduced the amendment after Democratic Rep. Joy Walters of Caddo Parish asked what counts as an abortion-inducing drug under the bill.

“So it's misoprostol and, um…” said Pressly, trailing off.

“Mifepristone,” said Pressly’s sister, Catherine Pressly Herring, who was given abortion drugs against her will, prompting Pressly’s legislation.

“Mifepristone,” said Pressly.

In a statement, Pressly said he added the amendment to “control the rampant illegal distribution of abortion-inducing drugs.”

Studies have shown a dramatic rise in people ordering abortion pills online and taking them in states with restrictive abortion bans.

“By placing these drugs on the controlled substance list, we will assist law enforcement in protecting vulnerable women and unborn babies,” Pressly said.

Under current law, a Schedule IV drug must be found to cause some level of physical or psychological dependence, and to have the potential to be abused, in order to be added to the list of controlled substances. Pressly said abortion medication “is frequently abused and is a risk to the health of citizens” and thus qualifies.

Louisiana Right to Life executive director Benjamin Clapper declined to be interviewed about the proposed law. But he did say he didn’t know if any other state has made mifepristone and misoprostol controlled substances.

In the hearing, Clapper testified that the bill would still allow physicians to dispense mifepristone and misoprostol for “lawful medical care.”

Proponents of the bill also stressed that women who give themselves abortions using the medications won’t be criminalized, no matter how they obtained the pills.

“Under this law, or any abortion law, in Louisiana, we see the woman as often the second victim,” said Dorinda Plaisance, a lawyer who works with Louisiana Right to Life. “And so Louisiana has chosen to criminalize abortion providers. And that's where we go with this bill as well.”

Elizabeth Ling, senior helpline counsel with If/When/How, which supports abortion access, said she hadn’t heard of any state proposing such a law or enacting one.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Ling said. “I think we have already seen states all over the country try and successfully criminalize abortion support.”

Ling said the law could isolate people using medication to have an abortion because they might be afraid to involve friends or family members out of fear that those people could be criminally charged.

“Now people not only have to consider what is best for them, but how their decision could put the people they care about at legal risk,” she said.

Misoprostol is one of the drugs most commonly used by OBGYNs, said Dr. Neelima Sukhavasi, an OBGYN in Baton Rouge and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. It’s routinely used in pregnancy care and to soften and dilate the cervix for other gynecological procedures, such as inserting an IUD or an endometrial biopsy, she said.

Sukhavasi questioned why mifepristone and misoprostol would need to be added to the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act at all.

“These are medications that have been proven to be safe,” she said.

She added that since Louisiana banned nearly all abortions, some patients who were miscarrying have had trouble filling prescriptions for misoprostol at pharmacies, and she suspected that was out of concern that the drugs would be used for abortions.

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.