Getting Abortion Pills Online: What To Know About Telemedicine Abortion

The Good Brigade
·12 min read

When Amy* (name changed to protect her privacy) learned she was pregnant, she was about seven weeks along. And she knew, almost immediately, that she didn't want to endure another pregnancy.

Amy, 27, has multiple chronic health conditions. And, if she became pregnant again, she would have had to temporarily go off many of the medications that help her, she told TODAY. Plus, her previous pregnancies ended in miscarriages.

"Physically, (miscarriage is) not pleasant. But emotionally, it really takes its toll," she said. "So, I was just like, I don't even want to go through it anymore. I just can't."

Looking for abortion services near her, Amy turned to the internet. And she found Choix (French for "choice"), one of several companies that provide medication abortions exclusively via telemedicine. "I just wanted to be in control of the outcome, and I wanted to figure it out sooner than later," Amy explained.

She took an initial online survey and received the pills, along with a care package, in the mail two days later. Throughout the entire process, Amy communicated with her providers entirely through secure text messages, an option that made her more comfortable and made abortion more accessible, she told TODAY.

“I didn’t talk to anyone, I didn’t have to call anyone, I never had to speak it out loud,” Amy said. “It just felt so much more liberating. And I didn’t feel guilt or shame (because) it could be totally confidential.”

What is telemedicine abortion?

Telemedicine abortion, also called telehealth abortion, is essentially a medication abortion in which medical consultations occur over video chat, phone call or text message, and the medications are sent through the mail.

In 2020, more than half of all abortions in the U.S. were medication abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. Before Friday's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that established a constitutional right to abortion, 19 states had effectively banned telemedicine abortion by requiring the clinician to see the patient in person to prescribe the medication, according to Guttmacher data from June 1.

Now that Roe has been overturned, about half of states are expected to ban abortion, Jean Bae, visiting professor at New York University School of Global Public Health, told TODAY, adding that this will likely include telemedicine abortion. While she expects there will be "a lot of back-and-forth litigations around this issue in many states ... it's probably somewhat safe to say that if you are in a state that already protects abortion, it would probably be not that hard to access medication abortion based on telemedicine ... whereas in other states where abortion access is limited, it will likely become a challenge, if it isn't already."

Internet searches for abortion pills skyrocketed to record highs after Justice Samuel Alito's draft decision leaked last month, according to new research published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

With some telemedicine services, the entire process happens through telehealth, meaning the patient never meets their provider in person; they may be asked about a positive pregnancy test, but aren’t generally required to provide one, and there are no mandatory ultrasounds, multiple experts told TODAY.

In other settings, clinics or hospitals may use telehealth for just a part of the process, like the initial consultation, Dr. Nisha Verma, Darney-Landy Fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and OB-GYN with a specialty in complex family planning, told TODAY.

How safe is telemedicine abortion?

"We actually have a lot of data that shows that telehealth abortion is just as safe and effective as medication abortion provided in person and that it increases access to care," Verma said.

Dr. Montida Fleming agreed: "Medication abortion is very, very safe. Using telemedicine for medication abortion is very, very safe," said Fleming, who is a physician in the department of family community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a clinician with telehealth abortion service Hey Jane.

(Hey Jane told TODAY in a statement after the Roe ruling that it "will continue doing (its) part to provide safe, effective, and private telemedicine abortion care to everyone who needs this essential healthcare.")

The ACOG guidelines for medication abortion at or before 10 weeks also state that "medication abortion can be provided safely and effectively by telemedicine with a high level of patient satisfaction, and telemedicine improves access to early abortion care, particularly in areas that lack a health care practitioner."

Added Ushma Upadhyay, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of California, San Francisco’s program Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH): "In our research, we've worked with 14 different clinics and found that all of them follow more or less the same protocol."

That process was codified by a variety of experts in the field affiliated with major reproductive health organizations — including ANSIRH, the Society of Family Planning and Planned Parenthood — amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Upadhyay explained. "We recognized there was a need to simplify the screening process and get people their medications," she said.

For instance, based on research showing that "people are extremely good at recognizing their pregnancies and assessing how far along they are," Upadhyay said, the protocols omit the need for a positive pregnancy blood test. And other research shows that neither a pelvic exam nor an ultrasound actually improves outcomes, suggesting that telemedicine abortion — with just a screening survey and virtual conversation about the patient's history — is a safe and effective option.

What is the process actually like?

Although there may be slight differences from practice to practice, all telemedicine abortions follow those same basic evidence-based steps, multiple experts told TODAY.

Survey

First, there's an initial survey to assess how far along the patient is in their pregnancy, to make sure they're currently located in a state where telehealth abortion is legal and that they don't have any underlying health issues (or an IUD) that could increase their risk for complications.

Some services ask whether or not you've had a positive pregnancy test, but they typically don't require you to provide proof of the results.

Contact with providers

If everything looks OK, the clinic will reach out to the patient to let them know they can proceed. If a patient has a more complex case — such as if they have an IUD, which can increase the risk for ectopic pregnancy, or an underlying health condition that puts them at greater risk for excess bleeding — more questions about the process or they just want to chat with a provider, they may do so through a video chat with a clinician who is licensed in their state.

"Some folks have had it before and know exactly what to expect," Leah Coplon, director of clinical operations at Abortion on Demand, an online telehealth service that provides medication abortion, told TODAY. "Some people have done a lot of research. And some people really need everything very carefully explained."

If the patient's case is relatively straightforward, they may be able to follow a path like Amy's and communicate via secure text messages or audio messages (a model called asynchronous care, Coplon said).

Like Amy, Laura* (name changed to protect her privacy) chose to communicate with her providers at Hey Jane entirely through HIPAA-secure texts. Already a mother of three small children and in the middle of buying a new house, Laura, 36, appreciated the simplicity of using telehealth to get an abortion.

And she says the nonjudgmental tone of the texts helped, too. "Every time they messaged me, they asked how I was feeling and they added little smiley faces," she told TODAY. "I felt like I was talking to a friend."

Receiving and taking the medication

Once approved, the patient can choose to receive their medications through different delivery options, including overnight. In the U.S., there are two online pharmacies that send out pretty much all of these medications, Coplon said, which are Honeybee and American Mail Order Pharmacy.

(One major exception is Aid Access, an international telemedicine abortion provider, which, depending on your state, may fill your prescription through a pharmacy in India. Aid Access told CNBC it will continue to mail pills to patients in states that ban abortion. Aid Access also fills advance prescriptions, so you don't necessarily have to be currently pregnant to order the medications.)

Amy decided to take her pills before going to bed so the process would happen overnight.

“I had a really terrible few weeks being pregnant. I lost like 15 pounds, I was in poor health,” she explained. But the morning after taking the pills, “I had never felt better. I just woke up, and for the first time in like two months, I wasn’t throwing up. I didn’t feel nauseous. I didn’t feel dizzy.” She felt “mentally relieved,” as well.

Before taking the medication, Laura read up on other people's experiences with medication abortion and learned that heavy bleeding is a common side effect. "I was so so frightened, but honestly it was not that bad for me," she said. As someone who is used to heavier periods, she said her medication abortion felt like a "mild period" and was "much easier" than what she'd been expecting.

Following up

As with any medication, abortion pills can cause side effects, most commonly cramping, bleeding and nausea, Verma said. Some people might also develop a mild fever and gastrointestinal symptoms, she said.

But recent research estimates that serious complications — those requiring hospital admissions, blood transfusions or surgery — occur in less than 0.5% of medication abortions in the U.S., according to ANSIRH.

And the science-backed process of surveys, initial conversations and follow-ups with telehealth abortion providers was designed to reduce those risks as much as possible, Upadhyay said. "The protocols are really about screening for eligibility and ensuring that the patient is not at high risk for an ectopic pregnancy," she explained.

In fact, telehealth abortion providers follow up with patients throughout the process to determine whether the medication worked and to make sure they aren’t experiencing any serious complications. And then they’ll follow up again about a month later and prompt patients to take a pregnancy test to confirm.

Hey Jane is able to provide real-time support for patients 24 hours a day, Fleming said. With experts available on their chat platform 12 hours a day and a 24-hour call line, the company is able to “answer their questions, evaluate whether their experience is what’s expected, offer reassurance if needed, and to identify any rare complications that may warrant additional care,” she said.

Amy appreciated the care she received from Choix so much that she’s still in contact with her providers there. “I was really impressed with their empathy and how they handled it,” she said. “And it was always the same people, too, which was really nice.”

In the rare event that the medication doesn’t work or there’s a complication that requires in-person care, the telemedicine abortion service will work with patients to get them the help they need, Coplon said. That might mean having the patient take a second round of pills or connecting them to an in-person clinic.

“We know this care. We are exceptionally good at working with patients to figure out what’s going on if there are any concerns,” Coplon said. She noted that Abortion on Demand has deep connections with independent clinics, so the organization is particularly adept at getting patients in-person help when required.

How to find a provider offering legal telemedicine abortion in your state:

To find telehealth abortion services near you, including telehealth abortion providers, the experts recommended you consult online databases they say are reliable, such as Plan C Pills and AbortionFinder.org.

But keep in mind that telemedicine abortion isn’t legal in many U.S. states, and the specific regulations differ by state. Each telehealth abortion company may have its own cutoffs for eligibility — generally no later than 10 weeks of pregnancy — and may only operate in a few states. And it’s the abortion laws of the state where the patient lives that govern their access, not the provider’s. Some telemedicine abortion services require the patient and provider to be located in the same state.

Telemedicine abortion typically costs between $350 and $500, Verma said. But that varies from clinic to clinic. And some online services are able to keep their costs lower, Fleming said. For instance, a telemedicine abortion with Hey Jane costs $249, according to its website. Choix offers its services for $289, and Abortion on Demand may charge between $239 and $289, depending on the state.

Whether or not insurance covers telemedicine abortion is a complicated issue. "It's very state-specific," Verma said. Medicaid may cover medication abortions in some cases, Upadhyay said, but in "some states, like California, people can only use their Medicaid if they go to a brick-and-mortar clinic. So it kind of depends on the patient and their insurance."

Telemedicine abortion can make it easier for some to access care — but not all

There are a variety of reasons someone might choose to have a medication abortion via telehealth rather than going in person.

"I've had patients from really remote areas in the states where the nearest abortion provider might be three or more hours away," Fleming said. "And I've had patients who live in a really big city where their nearest abortion clinic might only be 10 minutes away, but the wait times are weeks long."

Some patients, like Amy, simply don't want to talk about their decision in person and find it more comfortable to do everything at home on their own terms. And for Laura, who "gets anxious going to the grocery store," telehealth helped make the whole process more approachable.

Both Amy and Laura told TODAY that if telehealth wasn't an option, they doubt they would have gotten an abortion.

Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, telemedicine can help ease the burden on clinics in those states where abortion is still legal, which are likely to see an influx of new patients, Upadhyay said. And if telemedicine abortion helps more people get their pills earlier, "they will be more likely to be successful and ... they can avoid long waiting times for an in-person clinic," she added.

But telemedicine abortion isn't available for everyone.

“Patients don’t have this option in (at least) 19 states across the country — and those are the very same states that have the fewest abortion facilities and the greatest need for telehealth abortion,” Upadhyay said.

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