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U.S. justices show interest in Oklahoma abortion pill case

By Lawrence Hurley and Toni Clarke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday said it could consider an Oklahoma case about a state law restricting use of the abortion pill mifepristone, or RU-486, but first sought clarification from the state's high court over the legislation.

At issue is a law passed by Oklahoma in 2011 but never enacted due to legal opposition that bans the off-label use of drugs known to have abortion-inducing properties.

Mifepristone, marketed as Mifeprex by Danco Laboratories, is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to terminate early pregnancy when given in combination with misoprostol, an anti-inflammatory drug that was originally approved to prevent certain gastric ulcers.

But misoprostol, marketed under the brand name Cytotec by Pfizer Inc, is not independently approved by the FDA to terminate early pregnancy.

Therefore, banning the off-label use of misoprostol would effectively deny women access to medical abortions, since mifepristone is only effective in combination with misoprostol. Lawyers for the FDA were not immediately available to discuss the issue.

In a brief order on Thursday, the Supreme Court justices agreed to review the case. But before doing so, they want the Oklahoma high court to answer two questions on what exactly the state law prohibits and whether it conflicts with FDA guidance.

Michelle Movahed, the lead attorney representing the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, which advocates for women's reproductive rights, and an Oklahoma abortion clinic, said the questions essentially address how broadly the law should be interpreted.

The state's Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's decision to block the laws, saying they violated a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court abortion case ruling.

Once the Oklahoma court answers the question, the high court is then likely to decide what action to take, including whether to hear oral arguments. The U.S. Supreme Court is in recess until October.

The case is Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech)

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