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Use of Abortion Pills Has Risen Significantly Post Roe, Research Shows

ScienceUse of Abortion Pills Has Risen Significantly Post Roe, Research Shows

A study, published on Monday in the medical journal JAMA, found that the number of abortions using pills obtained outside the formal health system soared in the six months after the national right to abortion was overturned. Another report, published last week by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, found that medication abortions now account for nearly two-thirds of all abortions provided by the country’s formal health system, which includes clinics and telemedicine abortion services.

The JAMA study evaluated data from overseas telemedicine organizations, online vendors and networks of community volunteers that generally obtain pills from outside the United States. Before Roe was overturned, these avenues provided abortion pills to about 1,400 women per month, but in the six months afterward, the average jumped to 5,900 per month, the study reported.

Overall, the study found that while abortions in the formal health care system declined by about 32,000 from July through December 2022, much of that decline was offset by about 26,000 medication abortions from pills provided by sources outside the formal health system.

“We see what we see elsewhere in the world in the U.S. — that when anti-abortion laws go into effect, oftentimes outside of the formal health care setting is where people look, and the locus of care gets shifted,” said Dr. Abigail Aiken, who is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the lead author of the JAMA study.

The co-authors were a statistics professor at the university; the founder of Aid Access, a Europe-based organization that helped pioneer telemedicine abortion in the United States; and a leader of Plan C, an organization that provides consumers with information about medication abortion. Before publication, the study went through the rigorous peer review process required by a major medical journal.

The telemedicine organizations in the study evaluated prospective patients using written medical questionnaires, issued prescriptions from doctors who were typically in Europe and had pills shipped from pharmacies in India, generally charging about $100. Community networks typically asked for some information about the pregnancy and either delivered or mailed pills with detailed instructions, often for free.

Online vendors, which supplied a small percentage of the pills in the study and charged between $39 and $470, generally did not ask for women’s medical history and shipped the pills with the least detailed instructions. Vendors in the study were vetted by Plan C and found to be providing genuine abortion pills, Dr. Aiken said.

The Guttmacher report, focusing on the formal health care system, included data from clinics and telemedicine abortion services within the United States that provided abortion to patients who lived in or traveled to states with legal abortion between January and December 2023.

It found that pills accounted for 63 percent of those abortions, up from 53 percent in 2020. The total number of abortions in the report was over a million for the first time in more than a decade.

Overall, the new reports suggest how rapidly the provision of abortion has adjusted amid post-Roe abortion bans in 14 states and tight restrictions in others.

The numbers may be an undercount and do not reflect the most recent shift:shield laws in six states allowing abortion providers to prescribe and mail pills to tens of thousands of women in states with bans without requiring them to travel. Since last summer, for example, Aid Access has stopped shipping medication from overseas and operating outside the formal health system; it is instead mailing pills to states with bans from within the United States with the protection of shield laws.

In the case that will be argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the plaintiffs, who oppose abortion, are suing the Food and Drug Administration, seeking to block or drastically limit the availability of mifepristone, the first pill in the two-drug medication abortion regimen.

The JAMA study suggests that such a ruling could prompt more women to use avenues outside the formal American health care system, such as pills from other countries.

“There’s so many unknowns about what will happen with the decision,” Dr. Aiken said.

She added: “It’s possible that a decision by the Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs could have a knock-on effect where more people are looking to access outside the formal health care setting, either because they’re worried that access is going away or they’re having more trouble accessing the medications.”

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