POCATELLO — A local longtime physician turned attorney is representing an international client in a case that could have significant implications on the reproductive rights of women throughout the country.
European doctor Rebecca Gomperts has for decades assisted women in terminating their pregnancies in parts of the world where abortion is illegal after founding Women on Waves and Women on Web. In 2018, she founded Aid Access — a company much like Women on Waves that uses telemedicine and online consultations to offer abortion services to healthy American women who are less than nine weeks pregnant.
Gomperts, after receiving a warning letter in March from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requesting she stop providing abortion pills via mail to women in the U.S., recently solicited the services of Pocatello attorney Richard Hearn, who in 2012 represented Jennie Linn McCormack, a Pocatello woman charged with a felony for completing a second-trimester at-home abortion with pills purchased online.
Not only did Hearn’s representation of McCormack result in the dismissal of the criminal charge against her, but it also served as a catalyst for a class action lawsuit that resulted in an Idaho district judge declaring two state abortion statutes unconstitutional. The statutes sought to make it illegal for women or health care physicians to perform at-home abortions for women less than nine weeks pregnant.
“Jennie McCormack had received medication over the internet to complete an abortion at home,” Hearn said. “The eventual outcome of that case is Judge B. Lynn Winmill struck down the statutes that made it a crime for her to have had that medical abortion and the statute that made it a crime for doctors to help people have abortions using the medications at home.”
Hearn said Gompert contacted him after discovering his representation of McCormack. The current FDA concerns over Gompert’s practice through Aid Access has striking similarities to the McCormack case, Hearn added.
In its March 14 letter to Gompert, the FDA asked her to “immediately cease causing the introduction of these violative drugs into U.S. Commerce,” in reference to two abortion drugs Gompert sends to women in the U.S that the FDA has not approved, mifepristone and misoprostol.
Hearn responded to the FDA with a May 15 letter that indicates Gompert has plans to defy the order based on the constitutional right of women to receive reproductive health services afforded by the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade.
“The effect, if not the purpose, of the warning letter sent to Dr. Gomperts and Aidaccess.org has been to place a substantial burden in the path of U.S. women seeking to terminate their pregnancies prior to viability,” Hearn wrote in the letter. “In other words, the warning letter violates the constitutional rights of Dr. Gomperts’ patients in the U.S. Because access to medical abortions in the U.S. has been so restricted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), women have been forced to attempt to exercise their right to a medical abortion by way of the internet.”
According to CNN, in a one-month period in 2017, research published last year showed, there were nearly 210,000 U.S. Google searches for information about self-abortion. This indicates a demand for alternatives, perhaps driven by barriers to clinic access due to financial hardship, geographic distance, fear of being publicly shamed or other reasons, CNN reported.
In his letter, Hearn states that he feels the FDA is targeting Gomperts, evidenced by the massive amounts of other drugs and medical devices that are sent to the United States from other countries, of which he focused on opiods — a class of drugs for which usage has reached epidemic proportions throughout the U.S., Idaho included.
“In the face of more than 17,000 drug overdose deaths from opioids in the U.S. in 2017 — most of which were related to fentanyl illicitly sent by mail into the U.S. from China, and the tens of thousands of other incidents of harm to women caused by other drugs and medical devices (e.g., Essure, surgical mesh, breast implants) the Food and Drug Administration has decided to target a physician in (Europe) using telemedicine to provide constitutionally protected access to medical abortions in the United States,” he wrote.
Hearn doubled-down on the language of his letter during his interview with the Journal.
“In my opinion the FDA is going after Dr. Gomperts as opposed to other people who provide medication in the United States over the internet specifically because it has to deal with abortions,” Hearn said. “The FDA didn’t even acknowledge she was a physician in its letter. They just went after her like she was an internet pharmacy, which she is not.”
Hearn continued, “She is practicing telemedicine and treating American women who don’t have access to abortion providers in their community and cannot afford to travel to Salt Lake City, Boise or other cities. So, they access this medication and a doctor over the internet at their home.”
Despite the warning letter, Gomperts seems unfazed.
In a statement posted to Aid Access’ website after more than 100 anti-choice members of the U.S. House of Representatives thanked the Trump administration for addressing the sale of overseas medication abortion pills and encouraged FDA officials to continue limiting the import of the drugs, Gompert wrote, “I will not be deterred. When U.S. women seeking to terminate their pregnancies prior to (nine) weeks consult me, I will not turn them away. I will continue to protect the human and constitutional right of my patients to access safe abortion services.”
Hearn told the Journal on Wednesday that he views both Gomperts and McCormack as heroes for their efforts to ensure that women across the country, and Idaho specifically, have access to reproductive services.
“McCormack and Gomperts are heroes to me, and you don’t have to be pro-choice to see them that way,” Hearn said. “It was very unfair for McCormack to face a felony for having an abortion, regardless of what state she was living in because Roe v. Wade gave her that right. I feel the same way about Dr. Gomperts. The United States Constitution protects the right of a woman to choose, and if I don’t like that, I still shouldn’t stop women from choosing.”
Hearn continued, “I don’t think people in Idaho should stop women from asserting their constitutionally protected right and that is why I am helping.”