Women who wish to receive an abortion in the U.S. currently need to visit a provider in order to do so. But new research is testing out the idea of allowing women to undergo medical abortions at home, through a mail-order service.
Known as TelAbortion, the study is a research project that “aims to evaluate the use of telemedicine for providing a medical abortion to women who have difficulty getting to an abortion clinic,” per the TelAbortion website.
Here’s how it works: After consulting with an abortion provider by videoconference, participants are overnighted the necessary abortion medicines (mifepristone and misoprostol). The study is determining how well this service model works, as well as how women feel about it.
According to the New York Times, 12 women have participated in the study so far. Of the 11 who took the pills, none reported any complications.
About 25 percent of abortions in the U.S. are medical abortions, and nearly 3 million women in the U.S. have already used mifepristone to end a pregnancy since the drug was approved in 2000, according to its manufacturer.
While the concept of a mail-order abortion is new in the U.S., it isn’t in other parts of the world. Australia and British Columbia, Canada, allow women to get abortion pills by mail, after consulting with a doctor over the phone or online, the Times reports. Several international organizations also offer medical abortions via mail to women in countries where abortion is unavailable or restricted. One organization, the Netherlands-based Women on Web, has provided abortion medications to about 50,000 women in 130 countries since 2006.
State laws in the U.S. dictate the exact procedure that must be followed for a medical abortion, but a woman who is less than 10 weeks pregnant and wishes to obtain an abortion will typically be given mifepristone and misoprostol to end the pregnancy, according to Planned Parenthood.
Mifepristone (also known as Mifeprex) works by blocking the pregnancy hormone progesterone. Without progesterone, the lining of the uterus breaks down and pregnancy cannot continue, Planned Parenthood says. Misoprostol, which is taken 24 to 48 hours after a woman takes mifepristone, empties the uterus.
The Food and Drug Administration warns against buying these drugs online. “You should not buy Mifeprex over the Internet because you will bypass important safeguards designed to protect your health (and the health of others),” the FDA states.
But according to the TelAbortion website, the same evaluation procedures are used that a woman would undergo in a clinic, and women are given the same medications. “Therefore, if you follow the instructions, we expect that it will be equally effective and safe,” the website says.
Lauren Streicher, M.D., an associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agrees, telling Yahoo Beauty that this is “incredibly safe.” “It’s really important to emphasize the science and not the politics,” she says. While the current study has only been conducted with a few women (which Streicher says is of “no value” from a scientific standpoint), she points out that this has been happening safely in the Netherlands for years.
A telemedical abortion may be safer for many women because it can help them avoid a surgically induced abortion, which is required after 10 weeks of pregnancy, she says. “Looking at the science, is this safe and appropriate? The answer is yes,” she says.
But while women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., agrees that it would expand access to an abortion, she has concerns about safety. “My worry is that if women experience a complication or have serious side effects, they’ll have no medical supervision,” she tells Yahoo Beauty. “Also, what if the pills are taken by someone else?”
Wider notes that studies show that medical abortions are safe and effective and can save a woman time and travel expenses. “But with any medication, there is the potential for side effects,” she says. “I always think it is safer to be under the care of a doctor.”
Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology and director of minimally invasive gynecology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago, tells Yahoo Beauty that this method can be “very useful.” However, she adds, there should be safeguards in place. “It’s just a matter of correct balance,” she says. Maybe a patient could get a blood draw from a local healthcare provider after taking the medications to make sure they are no longer pregnant or receive proper counseling from a doctor beforehand, she says, noting that the “worst-case scenario” is an ectopic pregnancy (an egg that is fertilized outside of the uterus), which these drugs won’t end.
“It just needs a little more work done,” she says. “Otherwise, I’m all for it.”
Currently, TelAbortion is only available to women in New York, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington.