A few weeks ago, Dr. Sanithia Williams was working when her group text, made up of friends active in reproductive rights, lit up with news. Under a federal court ruling, the Alabama OB-GYN read, patients would temporarily be allowed to obtain medication for abortion through the mail after a virtual consultation with a doctor, instead of traveling in person to a clinic.
“I was elated,” Williams recalled. “This is something that people have been working on for a really long time ― opening up telehealth for abortion care.”
About 40% of abortions in the U.S. are done using medication. Eligible patients who are less than 10 weeks pregnant ingest two drugs, mifepristone and misoprostol, which essentially induce a miscarriage.
While the pills are typically taken at home, Food and Drug Administration restrictions have long mandated that one of the drugs, mifepristone, be dispensed in a medical setting. In practice, that means patients must travel to an abortion clinic ― often many miles away ― to pick up a drug that could just as easily be mailed. Leading medical groups oppose the FDA requirement, saying it is especially harmful to poor and rural women.
The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the rule during the pandemic, arguing that unnecessary travel puts patients at risk of contracting the coronavirus. On July 13, a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the FDA to temporarily suspend the in-person dispensing requirements, allowing health care providers to send mifepristone to eligible patients.
But Williams’ excitement soon faded once she realized her patients would not be able to take advantage of the federal ruling. Alabama, like many other states, has existing laws on the books that ban the use of telemedicine for abortion. “As of right now, it has not benefited our patients at all,” she said.
The Promise Of Abortion By Mail
Abortion clinics across the country are carefully examining whether it is possible to utilize the...