Abortion pills are starting to take on new importance as states anticipate a potential Supreme Court ruling on abortion later this year — one that many pro-life advocates hope could bring about a reversal of Roe v. Wade.
If Roe is overturned, legal access to abortion would become dependent on state laws — and in light of that as well as some of the abortion pill restrictions that came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of abortion pills is taking a center stage in the debate.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the existing requirement that forced women to meet with a physician before receiving abortion pills was lifted by a federal judge. The Trump administration challenged that reversal — and eventually won in the courts — but in April 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that it was going to allow the pills to be sent through the mail and prescribed via telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FDA permanently loosened those rules in December. Now, abortion pills can be sent through the mail or even potentially bought or acquired online.
Although the drugs are currently approved by the FDA for the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, there are some risks that come from the use of abortion pills — which are sometimes referred to as medical abortion or chemical abortion.
The process usually involves two sets of pills. The first one — mifepristone — kills the fetus by blocking progesterone. The second one — misoprostol — induces labor.
One of the main concerns with the pills is ectopic pregnancy, which happens when a fertilized egg attaches outside of the uterus. Such pregnancies are only visible via ultrasound, meaning pregnant women receiving abortion pills without seeing a physician wouldn’t be aware of the condition. Pro-life activists say removing the requirement for women to consult with a doctor before receiving abortion pills opens the door for potentially life-threatening complications.
Another concern about these drugs being sent through the mail is that this could be used to provide cover for perpetrators of sexual abuse. For example, if a young girl becomes pregnant, it’s important for her to be seen in person so a medical provider can screen for abuse.
At the moment, 19 states require the person administering the medication to be physically present when the drugs are given, and legislators in 13 states have also proposed bills that would make it so doctors have to educate women about abortion pill reversal treatment.
In California, a bill was introduced saying people “shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability or penalty, or otherwise deprived of their rights, based on their actions or omissions with respect to their pregnancy or actual, potential, or alleged pregnancy outcome, including miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion, or perinatal death.”
Perinatal death usually includes a death occurring within the first week of a baby’s life. This created some concerns regarding the ability of parents to be investigated for an infant’s death during the first week of life.
“The legislation I am introducing will make it crystal clear that in California we will not criminalize women for stillbirths, pregnancy loss, or abortions,” California Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, one of the sponsors of the bill, said in January.
A similar bill was introduced in Maryland this year. As states move to restrict the abortion pill being sent through the mail, there will likely be more pro-abortion legislators pushing for an expansion of abortion rights – especially for women who come to their states for an abortion.