Abortion opponents have rushed to introduce a slew of new abortion restrictions in the 2013 legislative session, attacking reproductive rights from all angles. But it’s not just about restricting access to existing medical procedures. Anti-choice activists are also looking ahead to the future, attempting to prevent medical technology from advancing to better accommodate women’s reproductive care.
Even though telemedical abortion services — which allow doctors to consult with their patients over a video conference and prescribe the RU-486 abortion pill remotely — can help expand reproductive care to women who wouldn’t be able to access it otherwise, abortion opponents are scaling a coordinated attack against the new technology. Decrying “webcam abortions” as an unsafe medical practice, despite the significant evidence to the contrary, anti-abortion lawmakers are increasingly advocating legislation to outlaw it. Here are five facts to keep in mind as the anti-choice community gears up for this fight:
1. Telemedicine is increasingly becoming a routine medical practice, and abortion is the only type of telehealth procedure that is tightly restricted. Telehealth, which first began being used in the 1960s to treat astronauts in space, has advanced over the past few decades to become a standard medical practice. In the past five years, telemedicine’s reach has quadrupled to treat 10 million Americans. The federal government has adopted the practice to treat chronically ill veterans. According to the chief executive officer of the American Telemedicine Association, abortion is the only area where lawmakers have restricted telemedicine. As Jordan Goldberg, the state advocacy counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, explained to Bloomberg, “There is a very clear division: Women are different, women who are attempting to access medication abortion are different.”
2. Nearly 95 percent of women who have telemedical abortions feel “very satisfied” with the procedure. Several studies have proven that telemedical abortion consultations are safe and effective. Despite anti-choice activists’ insistence that women must be face-to-face with their doctors, there is no difference between the women who visit a doctor’s office for a follow-up appointment after an abortion and the women who simply call to follow up instead. And 94 percent of women who terminate a pregnancy with the help of video technology report they feel “very satisfied” with their procedure.
3. Restricting telemedical abortion services disproportionately hurts low-income women in rural areas. Women who live in rural areas typically lack access to nearby abortion providers, and low-income women in particular often can’t afford the transportation to the closest health clinic. That problem is exacerbated by the mounting number of restrictions imposed on abortion providers, which narrows the pool of available abortion doctors even further. But after Iowa piloted the nation’s first telemedical abortion program, rural women’s abortion access significantly increased.
4. Allowing health clinics to practice telemedicine decreases the number of second-trimester abortions. If women in rural areas have more readily available options to access the reproductive care they need, they won’t have to put off having an abortion until they can travel to a surgical abortion clinic. The case study in Iowa proved that expanding access to the abortion pill through telemedical services can help lower second-trimester abortions. While abortion is still a very safe procedure when it is performed in the second trimester, earlier abortions do have a slightly lower chance of complications — and, of course, women who decide to terminate a pregnancy should not be forced to wait months to have the voluntary medical procedure.
5. Most of the states that are restricting telemedical abortion consultations don’t offer those services in the first place. At least ten states have banned the use of telehealth services to provide abortion care over the past several years, and another five are considering passing legislation to do so this year. But Bloomberg points out that telemedical abortions weren’t even being offered in the majority of those states the first place; Iowa is the sole state where lawmakers are considering a ban that would restrict a medical practice that is already in place. The anti-choice community — led by Americans United for Life, the anti-abortion group that drafted the language for the telemedicine bans — is working proactively to prevent the expansion of telemedical abortion services, particularly through indirect abortion restrictions that would require doctors to show women an ultrasound in person.