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BISMARCK, February 3, 2012 ( – A North Dakota law that prohibits abortion doctors from using a drug that was not designed for abortion procedures is being challenged in court, and has been temporarily blocked by a state judge.

The law specifically targets misoprostol, also known as cytotec, a drug which was created to treat gastric ulcers. The drug is useful to abortion doctors because it has the effect of softening the cervix and inducing contractions.

This “off-label” use of the drug was disavowed by the drug’s manufacturer, G.D. Searle Corp., in a letter sent to health care professionals across the country.


“Cytotec is not approved for the induction of labor or abortion,” the company wrote.  “Searle has not conducted research concerning the use of Cytotec for cervical ripening prior to termination of pregnancy or for induction of labor, nor does Searle intend to study or support these uses. Therefore, Searle is unable to provide complete risk information for Cytotec when it is used for such purposes.”

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The letter listed some of the “adverse events” that had been reported as a result of using the drug for these purposes, including uterine hyperstimulation, rupture or perforation of the uterus that required surgical repair, amniotic fluid embolism, severe vaginal bleeding, retained placenta, shock, pelvic pain, and maternal death.

The warning has not stopped abortion doctors across the country from continuing to use the drug, usually in conjunction with mifepristone, a drug which, unlike its counter-part, was specifically developed for use as an abortifacient. 

Some abortion advocates have even promoted the use of misoprostol alone to induce abortions, such as Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Woman on Waves. Gomperts stirred controversy when she posted instructions for a self-induced abortion using misoprostol as her profile picture on Facebook.

The North Dakota law bans this use of the drug, mandating that any drug employed in an abortion procedure must be used only according to the protocol authorized by the FDA.

The Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo, North Dakota’s only abortion clinic, has succeeded in stalling enforcement of the law in a court challenge, however.

East Central District Judge Wickham Corwin issued a restraining order in July to block implantation of the law, and heard over two hours of arguments from both sides during a hearing this past Friday.

Corwin delayed in issuing a ruling, requesting more information on the drug’s safety, but said that the law “seems to put an undue burden on any woman who wants a medication abortion,” according to the Huffington Post.

Opponents argue that the law singles out abortion clinics because it does not ban the off-label use of any other drug.

“It is unimaginable that any other medical procedures would be targeted for restrictions aimed at reducing their effectiveness and increasing their expense and inconvenience,” Nancy Northop, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the news service.

State Sen. David Hogue (R), a co-sponsor of the bill, argued that the distinction was a fair one because of the unique nature of misoprostol, which “trigger[s] the equivalent of a surgical procedure.”

According to the pro-life watchdog group Operation Rescue, if the law stands, it will effectively prohibit medication abortions, which comprise about 20% of Red River’s abortion business each year.

“It is ludicrous to say that requiring steps to ensure patient safety creates an ‘undue burden’ on them. I’d rather be inconvenienced than dead,” said Operation Rescue’s Senior Policy Advisor, Cheryl Sullenger. “This is really about keeping that abortion clinic open no matter who suffers.”