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Explainer: Companies provide abortion drugs in light of state restrictions

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October 25, 2021

As more states enact strict abortion laws and bans, some companies are tragically stepping in to provide medication abortions through drugs obtained overseas. This development narrows the window of opportunity to serve women in crisis and educate them about other options, ends the life of a baby, and could pose a greater risk to the mother’s life. 

What drugs are used for medication abortions? 

Mifepristone (formerly known as RU-486) blocks the hormone progesterone, causing the lining of the uterus to thin and preventing the embryo from staying implanted and growing. In most medication abortions, mifepristone is followed about two days later by a drug called misoprostol, which causes the uterus to contract and expel the fetus and placenta. 

Previously, the first dose had to be administered in a doctor’s office. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, that requirement was suspended. It is unclear whether it will be reinstated. For now, a telehealth visit is the only requirement for obtaining a medication abortion. 

What is the increased risk to the mother? 

These medication abortions pose significant medical risks for women. A review of nearly 7,000 abortions performed in Australia in 2009 and 2010 found that 3.3% of patients who used mifepristone in the first trimester required emergency hospital treatment, in contrast to 2.2% of patients who underwent surgical abortions. Women receiving medication abortions were also admitted to hospitals at a rate of 5.7% following the abortion, as compared with 0.4% for patients undergoing surgical abortion.

When is this abortion medication used? 

While this abortion process is recommended just for the first trimester of pregnancy, it does extend the option for abortion beyond the six-week measure recently enacted in Texas. However, another Texas law recently reduced the legal term for medication abortion from 10 to seven weeks’ gestation. The new law, which will go into effect Dec. 2, will also prohibit the mailing of abortion-inducing drugs. However, organizations like Aid Access, an Austria-based organization that provides abortion drugs in multiple countries, has stated it will continune to provide medication abortions in states like Texas, Arkansas, Arizona, Montana, and Oklahoma, all of which have passed laws banning sending abortion medications through the mail.

How does Aid Access work?

Aid Access employs U.S. healthcare providers who are licensed to prescribe the drugs in 18 states. But for those states where they do not have licensed providers or where mailing the drugs is banned, their founder, Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, prescribes the medication and ships it from a pharmacy in India. For Aid Access, this is a way to get around the new laws, which target those who provide the pills rather than the women who use them. Shipping the pills from India makes it unlikely that states will act to prosecute the provider. 

In light of tightening restrictions on abortion in the U.S., Aid Access has also started providing medications to women who are not currently pregnant but want to have the drugs on hand for future use. Gomperts sees this not just as an option for providers, but as an obligation. “I think that doctors do have an obligation to make pills available in advance, particularly when they know that people will encounter obstacles when they need a procedure,” she said. “Advance provision still means the doctor is the gatekeeper. It’s not over-the-counter, which is the ultimate goal. But it’s a step closer. And it allows pregnant people to take the medicines the moment they have a positive pregnancy test.”

How should Christians respond? 

Organizations like Aid Access pose a challenge for pregnancy resource centers and individuals seeking to serve women experiencing unplanned pregnancies. If abortion pills are in a woman’s medicine cabinet, she is less likely to reach out for help. Efforts to ban abortion, including medication abortion, need to continue. In addition, we should increase education about when life begins and the longterm effects of abortion. And we must make an effort to enact policies that make abortion less likely. But in the midst of all of this necessary work, we need to have compassion for the woman who sees taking pills as the solution to her unplanned pregnancy. The church must come alongside abortion-vulnerable women in order to serve them and help make abortion unthinkable and unnecessary. 

And more than anything else, we need to live out the words of our Savior, who taught us how to care for and serve one another in love, lifting up the brokenhearted and caring for the poor and needy. It’s the love he offers and the good news of eternal life through him that will provide the hope women in crisis truly need.

Catherine Parks

Catherine Parks writes and lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, two children, and a cute dog named Ollie. She's the author of Empowered and Strong, collections of biographies for middle-grade readers. You can find more of her writing at cathparks.com Read More