A Dutch doctor who has been defying the FDA to prescribe mail-order abortion pills for women in the U.S. is now suing the agency, claiming it is violating her patients’ right to privacy.
Dr. Rebecca Gomperts is the founder of Women on Web, a website that prescribes the abortion-inducing drugs misoprostol and mifepristone to women in countries with no legal access to medical abortion. She started another site called Aid Access in March of last year, after getting hundreds of requests for the medication from women in the United States. Through the site, she consults with patients, writes prescriptions, and tells them how to order through a pharmacy in India.
The same month her site launched, the FDA sent Gomperts a letter ordering her to cease operations, accusing her of selling “unapproved new drugs” and “misbranded drugs” to U.S. consumers. Under current FDA guidelines, misoprostol and mifepristone are available only at hospitals and doctors’ offices specially certified by the manufacturer, and cannot be obtained at a retail pharmacy—a restriction even the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says is too severe.
Gomperts’ attorney said the doctor has helped “thousands of women in the United States safely and effectively end their pregnancies.”
“Her patients are almost always young, some even as young as 14 years old, poor and powerless,” the lawyer said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “They are almost always victims of rape, emotional coercion by men holding power over them and/or physical abuse. For many, obtaining a medical abortion from Dr. Gomperts is not only their best option, it is their only option for safely ending their pregnancies.”
The FDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the suit, Gomperts claims the FDA seized numerous patients’ deliveries of misoprostol and mifepristone in the months after sending its letter. She also claims several payments from her patients were blocked at the FDA’s direction, and that two businesses she previously worked with—WorldRemit and Transferwise—have stopped doing business with her.
Another woman, Ursula Wing, was indicted in Wisconsin this summer for allegedly providing foreign-sourced abortion pills through her website, the Macrobiotic Stoner. She was charged with federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and introducing misbranded drugs into interstate commerce. If convicted, she faces up to eight years in prison.
A number of reproductive rights organizations have protested restrictions on the distribution of misoprostol and mifepristone in the U.S., pointing out that they are safer than common drugs like Viagra and are widely available in many countries. In the lawsuit, Gomperts contends that the restriction “has been and continues to be an undue burden on the rights of U.S. women to terminate their unwanted pregnancies during the early stages of their pregnancies.”
Advocates also believe that loosening restrictions on the drug could help expand access to abortion, at a time when many clinics are closing due to funding shortages and strict state laws. Six states currently have only one abortion clinic left, according to the ACLU, forcing some patients to drive hundreds of miles to obtain the procedure. Approximately 276,000 women left their home state to obtain an abortion between 2012 and 2017, according to a new Associated Press analysis.
Gomperts previously told The Daily Beast she started Aid Access to serve women who otherwise would no have access to abortion.
“Some women are living in their cars with their kids, they live five or six hours from a clinic,” she said. “The obstacles that women are facing in some of the states are insurmountable.”
“And what happens if they’re forced to carry their pregnancy to term?” she added. “These are women at the highest risk to die during childbirth… so the injustice continues after that.”