Telemedicine has become the norm for most medical specialties — except abortion services

Federal restrictions are limiting access to telemedicine abortion care. That needs to change

Published August 9, 2020 8:00AM (EDT)

Close up of young woman getting online medical help and advice during videocall with doctor (Getty Images)
Close up of young woman getting online medical help and advice during videocall with doctor (Getty Images)

The ongoing pandemic has led to huge shifts in how we live and work, and health care is no exception. In the past few months, telehealth visits have surged more than 50 percent, enabling patients to access much of the health care they need without taking the added risk of leaving their homes.

But for people seeking reproductive health services, longstanding state and federal restrictions continue to needlessly limit their access to telemedicine abortion care.

Medication abortion is an FDA-approved option for ending an early pregnancy that has been used for nearly two decades in the U.S. and can be offered safely and effectively through telehealth.

Like other telehealth visits, patients connect via a HIPPA compliant video conference with a physician who reviews their records, answers questions, and then remotely prescribes medication.

Allowing providers to administer medication abortion through telehealth would be the safest, most practical way to maintain access to early abortion care while alleviating the need for in-person visits or unnecessary travel. Telemedicine abortion care also allows patients to be seen sooner, which further minimizes the risk of complications or delays.

But despite the overwhelming evidence that telemedicine is a safe and effective way to deliver early abortion care, 17 states ban clinicians from prescribing abortion medication remotely, and FDA rules require abortion medications to be obtained in-person.

Even as the federal government has eased regulations to facilitate the use of telehealth for a wide range of health care services, abortion care continues to be stigmatized and excluded.

On July 13, a federal judge temporarily blocked the FDA from requiring in-person visits for medication abortion during the pandemic. Ruling in favor of medical groups who had challenged the restriction, U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang wrote that the "In-Person requirements, combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, place a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a medication abortion."
Now that the Supreme Court has once again clearly affirmed that medically-unnecessary contrivances to restrict on abortion care are unconstitutional – it is long past time for the United States to stop stigmatizing this safe, proven method of abortion care.

Restrictions on telehealth abortions are especially harmful for women who live in rural areas or states where abortion care has been essentially pushed out of reach. In some states, women are hundreds of miles away from the closest abortion provider.

As providers, we know that having an abortion is incredibly common. Statistically, 1 in 4 women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45. And as 98% of abortion procedures have zero complications, abortion is as safe as – or safer than – many common outpatient procedures.

We also know that telemedicine is the best and safest option for many of the communities we serve – with or without a pandemic. Our clients come from far and wide, and many live in rural areas with limited access to abortion care. Expanding access to abortion via telehealth would reduce their need to take time off work or scrape together additional money for travel.

If women need reproductive health care, they will get it. And it's up to their elected representatives to give them safe options instead of dangerous alternatives. Medication abortion care through telehealth should be one of those options.

Instead of using the COVID-19 pandemic to block people from care, our elected officials should use this opportunity to expand access to reproductive health services through telehealth.

As states move forward with re-opening, many observers are predicting that the expansion of telehealth is here to stay. This could have far-reaching benefits for women and families – but only if our elected officials call off their politically-motivated crusade against abortion and work to expand access to telehealth for everyone, including those who need abortion care.

By Julie Burkhart

Julie Burkhart is the president of Wellspring Health Access and the founder of Trust Women. She worked for seven years with Dr. George Tiller, who was murdered in 2009.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortions Commentary Reproductive Health Supreme Court Telemedicine