Consider Ashley, a 22-year-old G3P2, 8 weeks pregnant, on Medicaid and living in rural Arkansas. The victim of intimate partner violence, she just broke up with her boyfriend and feels she does not have the financial or emotional resources to raise another child; she has no family in town to turn to and wants to be the best parent she can be to her 10-month-old and 3-year old.
In Arkansas, as in many other states and the District of Columbia, Medicaid covers abortion only for rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life. Arkansas, as well as many other states, requires women to wait 48 hours following counseling before they can proceed with abortion. Waiting periods exacerbate Ashley’s tenuous situation. Will her boss give her time off from work? How will she get to the clinic? Who will watch her children? And lost wages and greater expenses are not the only problems she faces. Arkansas requires a legal contract between the abortion provider and a physician with hospital admitting privileges to provide medical abortion. The result: Only one clinic in Arkansas can legally provide medical abortion for its entire female population. For our impoverished young mother of two, the best choice is the most difficult. And she is far from alone.
Since 2010, many states have passed numerous laws restricting access to safe abortion. As geography plays a growing role in determining access, women and health care providers actively seek ways to circumvent barriers. Telemedicine, initially designed to expedite primary care for patients whose access was hampered by Boston traffic, now brings quality health care to areas lacking providers.1 Telemedicine works for a variety of medical services, from prescribing antibiotics to performing neurosurgery; reproductive health care is part of this digital revolution.2 In 2008, Iowa’s Planned Parenthood of the Heartland began using telemedicine to offer medical abortion.3
As approved by the Food and Drug Administration, medical abortion is the termination of a pregnancy of up to 10 weeks’ gestation using a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol, the former taken to block progesterone receptors, the latter to cause expulsion of the pregnancy. Today, about a third of all abortions in the United States are medical abortions. Because current FDA regulations require that mifepristone be dispensed by a physician, patients usually receive the medications after an in-person evaluation by a health care provider in a clinic.
Two models of telemedicine could improve access for Ashley.
In the first, like the Iowa Planned Parenthood model, remote clinic staff evaluate patients with history and physical examination, ultrasonography, and hemoglobin measurement; the information is forwarded to an off-site physician who has a video discussion with the patient and remotely dispenses the medication for eligible candidates. Between 2008 and 2015, Iowa Planned Parenthood provided 8,765 medical abortions using this model.3 Clinically adverse events, such as hospital admission, surgery, blood transfusion, and death occurred in 16 (0.18%) with no ectopic pregnancies or death.3 For comparison, the rate of severe maternal morbidity in the United States is 1.4%, approximately 10 times the rate with this model of medical abortion.4
In the second model of fully self-managed telemedicine abortion, patients complete a checklist that is reviewed by a provider who sends the medications through the mail. For safety, women must be able to determine their eligibility through the checklist, manage the medications, and self-assess for abortion completion. The World Health Organization endorses self-managed abortion as an option when there is “a source of accurate information and access to a health care provider should they need or want it at any stage of the process.”5 Women on Web, an organization that has provided telemedicine abortion to women globally, has recently begun providing services to the United States after sweeping restrictions vastly increased the number of requests from U.S. women. The U.S. service, Aid Access, operates similarly and for $95 provides online consultation, shipping of the medications, and Skype or phone calls for questions.6
Self-managed abortion has a bad reputation, in part from anti-abortion activists who seek to punish women who attempt to end their pregnancies themselves, but also because of its association with pre–Roe v. Wade “back alley” unsafe abortions. Neither perspective recognizes the benefits of safe self-managed abortion. Some states have criminalized self-induced abortion; both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association have voiced opposition to such laws to ensure that women do not fear prosecution for seeking medical care for complications.
Given the landscape of abortion access in the United States, where legal constraints, lack of insurance, and a dearth of providers may create insurmountable barriers, we support self-managed abortion for the following reasons: