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Judge will hear arguments in a case that could threaten access to medication abortion

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A Texas federal judge is hearing arguments this morning in a case that could limit access to a drug widely used for medication abortions.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

That pill is part of a two-drug protocol that's often the most accessible option for people in states with abortion restrictions.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon is in Amarillo and joins us now. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So if you could just start by reminding us what this case is about and what's at stake here.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, it's about an abortion pill called mifepristone and whether or not the drug can stay on the market. It was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration more than 20 years ago. Major medical groups, like the American Medical Association, say it is conclusively safe and effective. But the drug has always been the subject of political debate, and medication abortion has become the dominant form of abortion in this country in recent years. So a coalition of groups who oppose abortion sued the FDA last year. They claim the drug was improperly approved, and they've asked a federal judge here in Amarillo, where this case was filed, to overturn the FDA approval.

FADEL: So really a lot at stake here in a closely watched case. What do we know about the judge who's overseeing it?

MCCAMMON: So his name is Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, and he has a lot of critics. And that is based on his track record. He was appointed by former President Donald Trump. He has long-standing ties to conservative religious groups. And his critics accused the anti-abortion group that filed this lawsuit of judge shopping. You know, a law professor I spoke to at the University of Texas, Austin says that because of the way the federal courts work here, Leila, by filing in Amarillo, the plaintiffs were virtually assured of getting Judge Kacsmaryk assigned to the case.

FADEL: And what are you expecting to happen at the hearing today?

MCCAMMON: Well, this is all happening, first of all, after some big clashes over issues related to press access to the hearing.

FADEL: OK.

MCCAMMON: The Washington Post reported over the weekend that Judge Kacsmaryk had secretly scheduled the hearing but delayed announcing it publicly and that he told lawyers involved in the case to keep the details private. According to that report, he claimed that he was worried about protests and security. So a coalition of media groups objected to the delay on First Amendment grounds. The notice ultimately did get posted to the court's public docket on Monday - so just two days before the hearing. I should also say there will be no recording allowed in the courtroom. So, Leila, the effect of all of these rules and delays is that there will be very limited public access and very limited access for the press to these proceedings.

FADEL: Wow.

MCCAMMON: A court official told me this is a small courtroom, and members of the press will be allowed in until it's full, you know, with our notebooks and pretty much nothing else. And each side will have two hours to present their arguments.

FADEL: OK. So you found out on Monday and then got on a plane yesterday, right? So it's - hopefully you get in.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, that's the goal.

FADEL: So the judge will hear from both sides today. What's likely to happen next?

MCCAMMON: Well, Judge Kacsmaryk has a few options here, aside from, you know, just leaving the drug on the market. Mifepristone is subject to some additional FDA rules on top of typical prescription drugs. And the Biden administration pared back some of those rules in recent years. The judge could just put them back in place - for example, stopping the pills from being sent by mail, which became popular during the pandemic. Or he could order the FDA to take the drug off the market altogether. Now, whatever the judge does, Leila, will likely be appealed. And it's very possible that this case will end up before the Supreme Court.

FADEL: NPR's Sarah McCammon reporting from Amarillo, Texas. Thank you so much, and I'm sure we'll hear more from you.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.