Telemedical abortions new target
More states crack down on virtual nonsurgical procedure
About 40% of all abortions in the U.S. are now done through medication — rather than surgery — but that option is becoming restricted in some states.
Abortion rights advocates say the pandemic has demonstrated the value of medical care provided virtually, including the privacy and convenience of abortions taking place in a woman’s home, instead of a clinic. Abortion opponents, worried the method will become increasingly prevalent, are pushing legislation in several Republican-led states to restrict it and, in some cases, ban providers from prescribing abortion medication via telemedicine.
Ohio enacted a ban this year, proposing felony charges for doctors who violate it. The law was set to take effect this week, but a judge has temporarily blocked it in response to a Planned Parenthood lawsuit.
In Montana, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte is expected to sign a ban on telemedicine abortions. The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Greef, says the drugs should be taken under close supervision of medical professionals “not as part of a do-it-yourself abortion far from a clinic or hospital.”
Opponents of the bans say telemedicine abortions are safe and outlawing them would have a disproportionate effect on rural residents who face long drives to the nearest abortion clinic.
“When we look at what state legislatures are doing, it becomes clear there’s no medical basis for these restrictions,” said Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel for state policy and advocacy with the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Other legislation has sought to outlaw delivery of abortion pills by mail, shorten the 10-week window in which the method is allowed and require doctors to tell women undergoing drug-induced abortions that the process can be reversed midway through — a claim that critics say is not backed by science.
It’s part of a broader wave of anti-abortion measures numerous states are considering this year. The bills’ supporters hope the U.S. Supreme Court, now with a 6-3 conservative majority, might be open to overturning or weakening the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established the nationwide right to end pregnancies.
Legislation targeting medication abortion was inspired in part by developments during the pandemic, when the Food and Drug Administration under federal court order eased restrictions on abortion pills so they could be sent by mail. A requirement for women to pick them up in person is back.
Medication abortion has been available in the United States since 2000, when the FDA approved the use of mifepristone. Taken with misoprostol, it constitutes the so-called abortion pill.
Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, says medication abortions account for a quarter of the abortions it provides. Of its 1,558 medication abortions in the past year, only 9% were done via telemedicine, but the organization’s president, Kersha Deibel, said that option is important for many economically disadvantaged women and those in rural areas.
Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, countered that “no woman deserves to be subjected to the gruesome process of a chemical abortion potentially hours away from the physician who prescribed her the drugs. “
Greef said the measure she sponsored would ensure providers can watch for signs of domestic abuse or sex trafficking as they care for patients in person.
Yet advocates of the telemedicine method say patients are grateful for the convenience and privacy.
“Some are in a bad relationship or victim of domestic violence,” said Christina Theriault, a nurse practitioner for Maine Family Planning who can perform abortions under state law. “With telemedicine, they can do it without their partner knowing. There’s a lot of relief from them.”
Legislation targeting medication abortion was inspired in part by developments during the pandemic, when the Food and Drug Administration under federal court order eased restrictions on abortion pills so they could be sent by mail.
Iris Samuels is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.