Requests for self-managed abortion via a telemedicine service increased by 27% from March 20, 2020, to April 11, 2020, in the United States in the wake of widespread lockdowns and shelter-in-place directives because of the COVID-19 pandemic, based on data from a provider of such services.
Access to abortion care is challenging in many areas under ordinary circumstances, but the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic led to many states suspending or limiting in-clinic services, wrote Abigail R.A. Aiken, MD, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues.
“As a result, people may increasingly be seeking self-managed abortion outside the formal health care system,” they said.
In a research letter published in, the investigators reviewed request data from Aid Access, a telemedicine service that provides medication for abortion at up to 10 weeks’ gestation for users who complete an online consultation form. They also collected data on the implementation and scope of COVID-19–related abortion restrictions by state.
The analysis included all 49,935 requests made between January 1, 2019, and April 11, 2020.
Overall, the rate of requests for self-managed medical abortions increased significantly, by 27%, during the period from March 20, 2020, to April 11, 2020, which reflected the average period after clinic restrictions or closures at the state level. A total of 11 states showed individually significant increases in requests for self-managed medical abortions, with the highest of 94% in Texas and the lowest of 22% in Ohio. In these 11 states, the median time spent at home was 5% higher than in states without significant increases in requests for self-managed medical abortions during the same period. These states also had “particularly high COVID-19 rates or more severe COVID-19–related restrictions on in-clinic abortion access,” the researchers noted.
Patients want alternatives to in-person care
“Our results may reflect two distinct phenomena,” Dr. Aiken and associates wrote. “First, more people may be seeking abortion through all channels, whether due to COVID-19 risks during pregnancy, reduced access to prenatal care, or the pandemic-related economic downturn. Second, there may be shift in demand from in-clinic to self-managed abortion during the pandemic, possibly owing to fear of infection during in-person care or inability to get to a clinic because of childcare and transit disruptions,” they explained.
The study findings were limited by the inability to measure all options for women to achieve self-managed abortions and a lack of power to detect changes in states with low request numbers or where restrictions were implemented at later dates, the researchers noted. However, the results suggest that telemedicine services for medication abortion should be a policy priority because patients may continue to seek alternatives while in-clinic services remain restricted, they said.
In fact, “the World Health Organization recommends telemedicine and self-management abortion-care models during the pandemic, and the United Kingdom has temporarily implemented fully remote provision of abortion medications,” the researchers wrote. However, similar strategies in the United States “would depend on sustained changes to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, which requires patients to collect mifepristone at a hospital or medical facility, as well as changes to state-specific laws that prohibit remote provider consultation,” Dr. Aiken and associates concluded.