There are two legal ways to have an abortion in the United States, through surgery or medication. Medication abortions are those induced through taking mifepristone pills (which were called RU486 when they were developed). Mifepristone is not Plan B (levonorgestrel, a synthetic form of progesterone) or Ella (ulipristal acetate, which suppresses progesterone production). Plan B and Ella have nothing to do with abortion; both stop ovulation in order to prevent pregnancy. Mifepristone causes the expulsion of an embryo in an established pregnancy, much like a spontaneous miscarriage.
There are three main restrictions put on medical abortions in the United States:
- Pills must be provided by a licensed physician (not a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or other qualified health practitioner)
- Pills must be provided through an in-person patient-physician visit
- Pills must be provided according to the original FDA protocol (much lower doses of the pills have since been found to be effective)
White states have the least restrictive policies, and dark green states have the most restrictive. You can find an interactive version of this map at the Mother Jones website (the map does have some inaccuracies; Iowa and Arizona in particular currently have stays against some of their restrictions).
Restriction #1: Licensed Physicians
That the pills can only be provided by a licensed physician is a restriction that is not solely promoted by opponents of abortion. It is a restriction in place in states that receive an “A” from NARAL Pro-Choice America on choice related law (find your state’s laws and grade here).
Physicians often oppose legislation that would allow medical practitioners who are not physicians–including midwives, advanced practice nurses, or pharmacists–to provide care that is within their scope of training. Doctors often make the same argument that abortion opponents make: that they are trying to keep women “safe” (e.g. doctors protect women from midwifery care in New York; doctors protect people from receiving primary care from nurse practitioners in Texas; doctors protect people from vaccination by pharmacists in Florida).
In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of a futuristic society in which the United States is taken over by the Christian Right, the characters identify differences between “freedom to” and “freedom from.” If you haven’t read the book, go get it and read it immediately. In any case, Aunt Lydia, who trains women to accept their role in the new society, says,
There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.
“Freedom to” gives women agency and choice. “Freedom from” restricts them in exchange for safety and protection. In the novel, “freedom from” involves wearing burkah-like clothing, not being allowed to read, and bearing children for religious couples with political standing. This supposedly frees women from rape, responsibility, and thinking.
In any case, the paternalistic “protection” of making physicians the only practitioners who can provide medication abortions seems to have an underlying agenda–moral or financial–that has nothing to do with women’s health.
Restriction #2: In-Person Physician Encounter
Telemedicine is increasingly used to serve rural communities in particular. Many people in rural areas are far from hospitals and other sources of medical care. You can see in this map that there are large areas without critical access.
To provide needed care in the Mountain West, St. Luke’s Health System has established a virtual intensive care unit, which monitors 69 critical care beds in 5 hospitals and provides critical care consultation in 5 emergency departments in Idaho. Here is a video about it:
Critical care is being offered to people on the brink of death through telemedicine, but some states have seen fit to decide that medication abortions offered through telemedicine are dangerous. Over the past year, this restriction has generated attention in Iowa, where Planned Parenthood has safely offered medication abortions through telemedicine to thousands of women since 2008. In September 2013, the Iowa Board of Medicine, made up of political appointees, voted to ban telemedical abortions, in addition to imposing other restrictions and requirements.
Delaying access to abortion care narrows women’s options, as medication abortions are only considered safe through the first 9 weeks of pregnancy. After 9 weeks, a surgical abortion becomes a woman’s only abortion option (see here for a comparison of surgical and medication abortions). While there are risks and side effects from medication abortions, most of them are uncomfortable or annoying rather than dangerous. According to the FDA, no deaths have been directly attributed to medication abortions.
As Jill June, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said,
It’s evident that this ruling was not based on the health and safety of women in our state – it was based on politics. There was no medical evidence or information presented to the Board that questions the safety of our telemedicine delivery system. It’s apparent that the goal of this rule is to eliminate abortion in Iowa, and it has nothing to do with the safety of telemedicine. The reality is, this rule will only make it more challenging for a woman to receive the safe health care she needs. Iowa women deserve to have access to the newest medical technologies and all of the heath care services they need, regardless of where they live.
A judge halted Iowa’s ban through a stay until the court case is settled. The Iowa legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, was unable to pass a bill to instate the restriction through law; however, this restriction is in place in other states.
Restriction #3: The Original FDA Protocol
The Guttmacher Institute offers this chart comparing the original protocols for administering mifepristone pills established by the FDA, and the newer protocols adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) based on evidence that has emerged since the FDA’s original approval:
Abortion opponents have argued that adhering to the FDA protocols protects women, even though the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a government agency as is the FDA, has published guidelines for mifepristone administration in their National Guidelines Clearinghouse. The following guideline is level A evidence, the highest and most reliable evidence available:
Compared with the FDA-approved regimen, mifepristone-misoprostol regimens using 200 milligrams of mifepristone orally and 800 micrograms of misoprostol vaginally are associated with a decreased rate of continuing pregnancies, decreased time to expulsion, fewer side effects, improved complete abortion rates, and lower cost for women with pregnancies up to 63 days of gestation based on last menstrual period.
I have argued against non-FDA-approved use of Pitocin to induce labor electively. However, there is no evidence base for the use of Pitocin for non-medically indicated deliveries. As you can read in my previous posts (here and here), Pitocin is a high-alert medication with many dangerous side effects. Its elective use has no known benefit other than convenience. The new guidelines for mifepristone use, on the other hand, are based on evidence and involve giving a woman less medication rather than more.
That legislators would ignore a large, reliable body of scientific research does not inspire my confidence in their understanding of safety. If they really care about the health and safety of women and babies, restricting off-label Pitocin use would be a much more effective technique.
It should be noted that while a law was passed in Arizona imposing this restriction and was upheld by a federal judge in Tuscon on April 1, 2014, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the legislation on April 2. Thus, the only state implementing this restriction as of April 2014 is Texas.
If you view yourself as a human rather than a political pawn, you might want to say so. If you value your freedom to rather than your freedom from, you might consider fighting for that freedom. And if you are a woman in Texas who cares about her health, you may want to move.