Opponents of the bans say abortions using telemedicine are safe, and banning those abortions would disproportionately affect rural residents who have to make long journeys to the nearest abortion clinic.
“When we look at what state lawmakers are doing, it becomes clear that there is no medical basis for these restrictions,” said Elisabeth Smith, chief state policy and advocate for the Center for Reproductive Rights. “They are only intended to make this incredibly safe drug more difficult to access and to cast doubt on the patient-provider relationship.”
Other laws have sought to ban the delivery of abortion pills by mail, shorten the 10-week window in which the method is allowed, and require doctors to notify women undergoing drug-related abortions that the process is halfway through Way can be reversed – a claim that critics say is not backed by science.
It’s part of a broader wave of anti-abortion policies that numerous states are considering this year, including some that would ban almost all abortions. Proponents of the bills hope that the US Supreme Court, now with a Conservative majority of 6 to 3, could be open to approving Roe v. Wade of 1973, which established the nationwide right to terminate pregnancies, or to weaken it.
Drug abortion legislation was inspired in part by developments during the pandemic, when the Food and Drug Administration – by order of the federal court – relaxed restrictions on abortion pills so they could be mailed. A request for women to pick them up in person is back, but anti-abortionists fear the Biden government will permanently end these restrictions. Abortion rights groups are pushing for this step.
With the rule lifted in December, Planned Parenthood would ship telemedical abortion pills in the St. Louis area, monitored by its health center in Fairview Heights, Illinois.
A single mother from Cairo, Illinois, more than a two-hour drive from the clinic, chose this option. She learned that she was pregnant just months after giving birth to her second child.
“It would not have been a good situation to have another child,” said the 32-year-old woman, who spoke on condition that her name should not be used to protect her family’s privacy.
“The fact that I could do it from the comfort of my home felt good,” she added.
She was relieved to avoid a long journey and grateful for the clinician who walked her through the procedure.
“I didn’t feel alone,” she said. “I felt safe.”
There has been an abortion in the US since 2000 when the FDA approved the use of mifepristone. Taken with misoprostol, it forms what is known as the abortion pill.
The method’s popularity has grown steadily. The Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, estimates it accounts for about 40% of all abortions in the United States and 60% of abortions by 10 weeks of pregnancy.
“Aside from its exceptionally safe and effective track record, the importance of drug withdrawal is as important as how convenient and private it can be,” said Megan Donovan, senior policy manager at Guttmacher. “That is exactly why it is still subject to strict restrictions.”
Planned Parenthood in southwest Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, says drug abortions make up a quarter of the abortions they offer. Of the 1,558 drug withdrawals in the past year, only 9% were carried out via telemedicine. However, the organization’s president, Kersha Deibel, said this option is important for many economically disadvantaged women and women in rural areas.
Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, countered that “no woman deserves to undergo the gruesome process of chemical abortion that may be hours away from the doctor who prescribed the medication.”
In Montana, where Planned Parenthood operates five of the state’s seven abortion clinics, 75% of abortions are medicated – a big change from 10 years ago.
Martha Stahl, president of Planned Parenthood of Montana, says the pandemic – which has increased reliance on telemedicine – has contributed to an increase in drug drop-outs.
The vast state, home to rural communities and seven Native American reservations, has many women more than a five-hour drive from the nearest abortion clinic. For them, access to telemedicine can be important.
Greef, who sponsored the telemedicine abortion ban, said the move would ensure providers can watch out for signs of domestic abuse or sex trafficking when caring for patients in person.
However, proponents of the telemedicine method say that patients are grateful for the convenience and privacy.
“Some are in bad relationships or are victims of domestic violence,” said Christina Theriault, a family planning nurse in Maine who can perform abortions under state law. “With telemedicine, you can do it without your partner knowing. You are very relieved.”
The group has health centers in far north Maine where women can be given abortion pills and taken home under the supervision of health care providers who communicate by phone or videoconference. It saves women a three to four hour drive to the nearest abortion clinic in Bangor, Theriault said.
Maine Family Planning is one of a small group of providers participating in an FDA-approved research program that enables women to receive the abortion pill in the mail after video consultations. As part of the program, the Maine group can also ship pills to women in New York and Massachusetts.
Samuels is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program in which journalists report undercover issues to local newsrooms.