With the inclusion of telehealth in Power to Decide’s Abortion Finder, patients can find out with a few clicks if they can get abortion pills via the mail.
Updated Monday, Nov. 8, at 5:37 a.m. PT.
More abortion restrictions have been enacted this year than any other, with 19 statehouses passing 106 new limitations on the procedure. Just within the microcosm of Texas—home to one in 10 U.S. women of reproductive age—options for abortion access in Texas have drastically changed three times in three weeks. It’s no surprise then that it can be hard to keep track of all the options, or lack thereof, for safe abortions in this country.
Abortion Finder is meant to change that. Launched in 2020 by nonprofit Power to Decide, the tool provides a list of nearby abortion providers with a few clicks. Now the organization has included a new feature: telehealth abortion providers.
Telehealth abortions have a complicated history in the U.S.—until the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA required mifepristone, one of the two pills necessary to safely and effectively induce an abortion, to be distributed in-person by a clinician. In July 2020, a federal ruling temporarily suspended these restrictions due to the risk of in-person medical visits, allowing the consultations to take place virtually and the pills to be mailed directly to patients.
A Trump administration request granted by the Supreme Court reinstated the restrictions in January 2021, prohibiting abortion via telemedicine. This decision was reversed by the Biden administration in April 2021, but 19 states still require a clinician to be physically present when abortion pills are distributed. Other restrictions, such as the ultrasound requirements that currently exist in six states also target telehealth abortions.
Telehealth Abortions Are “Safe, Effective and Acceptable”
There are no medical reasons for these restrictions. A reproductive health research group, Gynuity, recently concluded a five-year study on the safety of telehealth abortions. The resounding result: Sending abortion pills via mail after a video consultation is “safe, effective and acceptable.”
During the pandemic, many clinics have adapted what Tara Shochet, head of Gynuity’s Telabortion Project, calls a “drive-up model,” where patients can talk to a physician via video call before driving to a clinic and simply picking up the pills. This approach is even possible in some states that prohibit mailing abortion pills.
Still, there are a number of unnecessary requirements implemented in many states that directly target telehealth abortions, Shochet says.
Finding Telehealth Abortion Options
State and federal restrictions are not the only obstacle in the way of accessing abortion care via telehealth. Even if telehealth abortions are an option in many states, how does one go about finding a reliable provider? Since September, Abortion Finder includes a list of clinics that offer online appointments after which patients will receive their abortion pills in the mail.
“The site also tells state by state whether there are certain laws like waiting periods, gestational age limits … or whether parental involvement is required in that state,” Jennifer Johnsen, president for digital programs and education at Power to Decide, told Ms.
Power to Decide is collaborating with larger provider networks like Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation to make sure the information on the site is correct and up-to-date. They also check in with providers personally, every day.
“We have folks who call clinics and verify all the data, so we have a person on staff because of the situation in Texas who calls every Texas provider every day,” Johnsen said.
The Importance of Telehealth Abortions
Ensuring access to telehealth abortions is about far more than convenience—it is about access. Abortion restrictions especially target low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color. Telehealth abortions are a way of making it easier for pregnant people who need abortion care to access that care, even if they live far away from the next abortion provider and can’t take time off work.
Rachel Fey, vice president for policy and strategic partnerships at Power to Decide, said telehealth abortions even play a role in making abortion care a possibility for those affected by the Texas ban. Fey said although Oklahoma requires a 72-hour waiting period between an initial appointment and the abortion procedure, these initial appointments have been conducted through telehealth. With this option, patients only have to drive to a different state once in order to access abortion care. A set of new laws in Oklahoma would have required both appointments to be in-person, Fey says, but these laws were blocked by the Supreme Court on October 25th.
“Telehealth is a tool in a toolbox, but without a constitutional right to abortion care nationwide, the tool can only do so much,” said Fey.
Abortion Finder helps pregnant people find reliable abortion providers, both through telehealth and in-person, but many are still blocked from accessing this basic care. In order to continue protecting and building access, legislation like the Women’s Health Protection Act, federal legislation that will protect the right to access abortion care throughout the United States, must be passed.
Still, telehealth is one creative solution to attacks on abortion access. Together with options like ordering abortion pills online, these technical advances have the power to make sure that abortion access persists to some extent, despite the continuing attacks abortion rights are facing.