OKLAHOMA CITY — An Oklahoma judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked from taking effect a new law designed to reduce the number of abortions performed in the state by restricting the ways in which doctors can treat women with abortion-inducing drugs.
Oklahoma County District Judge Daniel Owens issued the ruling after a conference call with attorneys for both sides.
The temporary injunction prevents the bill from going into effect on Nov. 1. Passed earlier this year by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Mary Fallin, the measure requires doctors to follow the strict guidelines and protocols authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and prohibits off-label uses of the drugs. It also requires doctors to examine the women, document certain medical conditions and schedule follow-up appointments.
Opponents of the measure say the off-label use of drugs – such as changing a recommended dosage or prescribing it for different symptoms than the drug was initially approved for – is common, and that the measure would prevent doctors from using their best medical judgment.
"We're thrilled that women in Oklahoma will continue to be able to access medical care that accounts for scientific evidence, sound medical judgment and advancements in medicine," said Michelle Movahed, an attorney for the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenged the law on behalf of Nova Health Systems, a Tulsa-based abortion provider, and the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, a nonprofit abortion-rights group.
Similar laws approved in North Dakota and Ohio have been delayed pending legal challenges, Movahed said. The North Dakota lawsuit says that state's law would prevent doctors from using the drug misoprostol because it's labeled for treatment of stomach ulcers. It's one of two drugs that are administered in combination to induce abortions.
Attorneys for Oklahoma contend that the drugs are dangerous and should be used only in strict accordance with FDA guidelines.
"To date, at least eight American women have died from mifepristone abortions," Assistant Attorney General Victoria Tindall wrote in the state's response to the center's lawsuit. "The dangerous risks of mifepristone demand strict adherence to the FDA-approved protocol."
Attorney General Scott Pruitt said in a statement that the judge's decision "is unfortunate for the state and our public health, but it is not a surprise with new legislative provisions being tested."
Movahed said as many as 21 percent of all drugs are prescribed for off-label use. In the case of drug-induced abortions, she said a common regimen is to use one-third of the FDA-recommended amount of the abortion drug mifepristone in conjunction with misoprostol, which has been determined to be effective for a variety of other purposes than gastric ulcers. She said in the decade since the mifepristone FDA label was approved, numerous studies have shown the combination is safer and more effective.
"The evidence supporting these alternative regimens are of such high quality that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists gave these alternative regiments their highest possible recommendation," Movahed said.
Movahed also disputed the state's assertion that abortion drugs caused the deaths of women.
"Those cases were investigated by both the FDA and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and there was absolutely no causal relationship found between those unfortunate deaths and the medications that had been used," she said.
The author of the Oklahoma measure, Republican Rep. Randy Grau of Edmond, said he was disappointed with the judge's decision.
"It's the wrong decision. It's one that I think puts Oklahomans at risk," Grau said. "This bill is about patient protection and safety, and the judge has put a stop to those protective measures that the Legislature overwhelmingly supported.
"If they believe the FDA protocol needs to be changed, then go to the FDA and get it changed."
Oklahoma also passed a law last year that would require women seeking abortions to first have an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus. The Center for Reproductive Rights is challenging that law as well, and it also has been temporarily suspended while the case is ongoing.
"What we see is a Legislature that has time and again said that they want to score political points off of a very difficult and emotionally charged issue," said Ryan Kiesel, a former state lawmaker and now the director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "And they're willing to do so at the expense of women's health and at the expense of taxpayers, who are on the hook to fund the defense of these pieces of legislation."
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy