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U.S. groups suing to ban abortion pill lose bid for early trial

FILE PHOTO: A pack of Mifeprex pills, used to terminate early pregnancies, is displayed in this picture illustration

By Brendan Pierson

(Reuters) - A Texas federal judge on Tuesday refused to set an accelerated trial schedule for a lawsuit by anti-abortion groups seeking to end U.S. sales of the abortion pill mifepristone, in a case that could severely disrupt access to medication abortion nationwide.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Amarillo rejected the groups' request to skip a hearing on whether to halt sales of the pill temporarily until the case is fully heard and instead go straight to trial. The Biden administration had opposed the request.

Anti-abortion groups including the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine brought the case against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last November, claiming the agency used an improper process to approve the drug mifepristone in 2000 and did not adequately consider its safety for minors.

Mifepristone is approved for medication abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy in combination with another drug, misoprostol. Medication abortion accounts for more than half of U.S. abortions.

Suing in Amarillo, where the Alliance had been incorporated three months earlier, ensured that the case would go before Kacsmaryk, a reliable conservative and former Christian activist.

The government has countered that the drug's approval was fully supported by evidence, and that the challenge, 22 years after the fact, comes much too late.

Medication abortion has drawn increasing attention since the U.S. Supreme Court last year reversed its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which had guaranteed abortion rights nationwide. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, directed federal agencies to expand access to medication abortion in response to the decision, which has allowed more than a dozen Republican-led states to adopt new abortion bans.

The FDA said in a court filing last month that the "public interest would be dramatically harmed" by pulling mifepristone from the market, forcing women to have unnecessary surgical abortions and greatly increasing wait times at already overburdened clinics.

Major medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, last week weighed in on the side of the government, saying mifepristone "has been thoroughly studied and is conclusively safe."

State attorneys general have also submitted filings in the case, with Democrats opposing the lawsuit and Republicans supporting it.

Mifepristone is also the subject of lawsuits in West Virginia and North Carolina seeking to expand access to the drug by arguing that state restrictions on it conflict with federal law.

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)