Pandemic Drives Demand for Self-managed Abortions

Heidi Splete

September 30, 2020

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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 Obstetrics & Gynecology, 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," 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," Aiken and associates concluded.

Lift Barriers to Protect Patients

"This important and timely article assesses the association between the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic and online requests for telemedicine abortion," Eve Espey, MD, of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, said in an interview.

"As background, state abortion restrictions have increased exponentially over the last decade, while research over the same time period has demonstrated the safety of telemedicine abortion – a form of self-managed abortion – with no in-person visit for appropriate candidates," she said.

"Enter the coronavirus pandemic with safety concerns related to in-person medical visits and certain states leveraging the opportunity to enact even more stringent abortion restrictions. Unsurprisingly, the result, as documented in this excellent research report, is a significant increase in requests for telemedicine abortion in many states, particularly the most restrictive, from the single online service in the United States, Aid Access," said Espey.

"Barriers to self-managed abortion include the [FDA] Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy for mifepristone, a set of unnecessary restrictions requiring that providers meet certain qualifications and dispense the medication only in a clinic, office, or hospital," she said. "The REMS precludes the use of telemedicine abortion; Aid Access and the FDA are in legal proceedings," she noted.

"Most recently, the [American Civil Liberties Union] sued the FDA on behalf of a coalition of medical experts led by [American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists] to suspend the REMS for mifepristone during the COVID public health emergency, to allow patients to receive the medications for early abortion without a visit to a health care provider," Espey said. "Fortunately, a federal district court required the temporary suspension of the in-person dispensing restriction. Although this is a great step to improve abortion access during the pandemic, a permanent removal of the REMS would pave the way for ongoing safe, effective, and patient-centered early abortion care," noted Espey, who was asked to comment on the research letter.

Aiken disclosed serving as a consultant for Agile Therapeutics, and a coauthor is the founder and director of Aid Access. Espey had no financial conflicts to disclose. She is a member of the Ob.Gyn. News Editorial Advisory Board.

SOURCE: Aiken ARA et al. Obstet Gynecol. 2020 Jul 21. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000004081.

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