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Oklahoma high court says drug-induced abortion law unconstitutional

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that a state law meant to restrict the use of abortion-inducing drugs instead bans them altogether, rendering the law unconstitutional and paving the way for the measure to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state had argued that the 2011 law was written to force abortion providers to use federal guidelines when administering the RU-486 drug, the so-called "abortion pill."

But the state court said Tuesday that the effect of the law as it is written is a ban on all abortions by medications, and as a result "restricts the long-respected medical discretion of physicians" who may feel that method is safer for some patients than surgical abortion.

A similar restriction in Texas was partially upheld Monday by a federal district judge, who ruled that the state could require adherence to federal guidelines unless a doctor decides medical abortion is needed to preserve the life and health of the mother.

Some 18 states have laws restricting or banning the use of medication abortions, several of which are under judicial review or have been blocked, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization which supports the right to abortion.

In practical terms, the ruling changes nothing for women choosing medication abortions in Oklahoma because the law was halted by a district judge in 2012 in a lawsuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court put the case on its docket, but before it would hear arguments the court instructed the state Supreme Court to interpret whether it bans all use of the medication or just restricts it to federal guidelines.

Tuesday's ruling bolsters arguments by abortion-rights groups that the law should be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, whatever its effect, said Martha Skeeters, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, which filed the lawsuit.

Proponents of the law say that requiring abortion providers to use the Food and Drug Administration's protocol for medication abortions is safer for women, reduces errors, and has more credibility than off-label use.

But abortion-rights groups and providers say the federal protocol, based on recommendations made by the drug manufacturer in the 1990s, is more expensive, requires more trips to the clinic and can have more side effects than the common off-label protocol in use by many providers.

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Gunna Dickson)

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