Credit: Marian Shapiro

In an unprecedented ruling on April 7, one conservative federal judge in Texas ordered a hold on the Food and Drug Administration approval of mifepristone, an abortion pill that has been used in 98 percent of medication abortions since its approval in 2000.  

On Saturday, a group of pro-choice advocates in Santa Barbara had something to say about it. Gathered on the corner of State Street and Anapamu Street, people old and young displayed their message loud and clear: They’re angry, and “committed to reproductive justice,” as one woman’s large sign succinctly put it. 

Credit: Marian Shapiro

The ruling from Trump-appointed Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk — who is outspokenly anti-abortion — could disrupt access to abortion even in states where abortion is legal by halting FDA approval of mifepristone nationwide. 

It is the first time a single judge has bypassed the federal system for determining what drugs can be on the market, which some say could put the country’s drug approval process at risk and undermine the FDA’s authority. 

“The reason we are out here today is because unelected, extremist judges are rejecting science and the law in an attempt to continue to dismantle safe and legal abortion,” said Kathryn Henry, a community organizer for Planned Parenthood Central Coast Action Fund. “Make no mistake: These courts are turning back the clock on reproductive health care.” 

Saturday’s rally was organized by the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee (SBWPC), Women’s March Santa Barbara, League of Women Voters Santa Barbara, and Democratic Women of Santa Barbara. 

Attendees danced with members of World Dance for Humanity, chatted and chanted with one another, and cheered at passing cars that honked in support. 

“We’re feeling such a strong sense of community, between women and our allies,” said SBWPC President Paula Lopez. “We dance, we bond together, but we are angry as hell about what’s being done to erode our rights.”

Credit: Marian Shapiro

Some attendees of Saturday’s rally have been fighting for women’s rights for decades. Pam Flynt-Tambo, a member of the League of Women Voters, remembers sending a telegram to one of her representatives in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s. “I’ve been stressing about women’s issues for 50 years,” she said.

Eighty-year-old Marian Shapiro first came to the area to attend UC Santa Barbara when she was 18. When her husband got a job in rural Kansas years later, she went with him and started a small Planned Parenthood clinic there.

“For many, many years, I helped people who wanted to make their own decisions,” she said. “And we’ve gone back to what it was 50 years ago. So I just hope that we never stop fighting.” 

Shapiro has been back in Santa Barbara for the past 21 years, and she has been active with the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara, “trying to get Democrats elected; pro-choice people — of any party — elected.” 

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Assemblymember Gregg Hart was one local representative in attendance on Saturday. He called the Texas ruling “insidious and dangerous,” adding that it was a “galvanizing moment” for people around the county. Hart was also one of the many men in attendance, and said men “need to do our part, more than just being allies, but to actively work to dismantle the system that oppresses women and young women.”

Credit: Marian Shapiro

In response to whether he thinks abortion access should be a politicized issue, Hart said, “No, it should be a basic human right.” However, he continued that the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, has used an “authoritarian playbook” to “pull on this string and begin unraveling these rights.” 

“California has been a leader, and we are doing the best we can to resist this tide and protect women’s reproductive freedoms,” he said. “But now we have to take care of folks in other states — do everything we can to make California a sanctuary state where people can come and get the services they need. So we’re going to be stockpiling medications and trying to help in a regional way.”

Since last week’s ruling, mifepristone’s uncertain future has been the center of a legal battlefield and heated political debate. 

Not even a full day after the ruling, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., made a contradictory ruling ordering the FDA to not make any changes to mifepristone’s availability. The clashing rulings will most likely result in the case being heard by the Supreme Court. 

Credit: Marian Shapiro

Then, on Monday, the Biden administration appealed Judge Kacsmaryk’s decision to revoke FDA approval of the drug to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which kept FDA approval in place but temporarily imposed tighter restrictions on the drug. 

The Court of Appeals blocked distribution of the pill through the mail, reimposed the requirement of an in-person doctor visit for prescription of the drug, and limited the timeframe in which women can take the pill from 10 weeks gestation to seven weeks. 

However, on Friday, April 14, a day prior to the Santa Barbara rally, the Supreme Court lifted the restrictions placed on the pill’s distribution until Wednesday, April 19, in response to requests for an emergency stay filed by the Biden administration and mifepristone’s manufacturer, Danco Laboratories, LLC, while the courts process their appeal. 

California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined attorney generals from 23 other states and Washington, D.C., in signing an amicus brief supporting the applications for the stay. 

Credit: Marian Shapiro

In the brief, the 24 attorneys general argue that revoking FDA approval of mifepristone would jeopardize the health, safety, and financial well-being of many pregnant people, deepen existing health-care disparities, add more stress to an “already overwhelmed healthcare system,” and  “violate the rights of sovereign states that promote access to abortion care for their residents.”

Anti-abortion advocates, such as the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF), who filed the suit in Texas, are celebrating the decisions of Kacsmaryk and the Court of Appeals. 

At Saturday’s rally, one man repeatedly asked organizers about the rights of “unborn children,” saying that “children’s rights should be protected.”

“What about a child’s rights? Health care for children,” he shouted while Kathryn Henry of Planned Parenthood was addressing the crowd. His words echoed the common argument of anti-abortion groups that a fetus is a child and has a right to life. 

The ADF, on behalf of multiple anti-abortion groups and doctors (Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine), argued that the FDA did not ensure the safe use of mifepristone in their approval of it. 

“By illegally approving dangerous chemical abortion drugs, the FDA put women and girls in harm’s way, and it’s high time the agency is held accountable for its reckless actions,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Baptist in an April 7 statement. 

Credit: Marian Shapiro

The FDA argued that the drug’s safety and efficacy is backed by scientific evidence, and ensuring the drug’s safety was required for its approval more than 22 years ago. According to the FDA’s amicus brief, the “FDA extensively reviewed the scientific evidence and determined that the benefits of mifepristone outweigh any risks.”

Mifepristone is one half of a two-pill regime, and when paired with misoprostol has been proved to be 95 percent effective. About 5.6 million women have used mifepristone in the United States as of June 2022, according to the FDA.

Although the ADF argued against the pill’s safety, mifepristone has a safety record of more than 99 percent (five deaths per million), which is higher than other commonly prescribed drugs such as penicillin (20 deaths per million) and Viagra (49 deaths per million), according to the FDA.

Henry called the Supreme Court’s decision on Friday “appropriate,” and said that the situation is “fluid, and will continue to evolve.” She said if Saturday’s crowd were to leave with one message, it should be that “medication abortion is safe, legal, and acceptable in the state of California, no matter what.”


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