Aug 31, 2023 - Health

Telehealth abortions are on the rise in California

Photo of a packet of Mifepristone pills

Abortion medication mifepristone is embroiled in legal challenges. Photo: Soumyabrata Roy/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The share of abortions provided virtually in California increased from 5.3% in April 2022 to 7.9% in March 2023 following a surge in abortion pill demand in response to GOP-led restrictions in other states, per the latest report from the Society of Family Planning.

Why it matters: A federal appeals court ruling limiting access to the abortion pill mifepristone may pave the way for a Supreme Court showdown that puts the future of telehealth abortions at risk.

Driving the news: Among West Coast states, California had the second-largest change after Washington in the share of telehealth abortions — recorded as occurring in the state where the medications were prescribed.

  • California had an increase of 2.6 percentage points from April 2022 to March 2023, compared to a 2.9 percentage point increase in the U.S. overall.

The big picture: Telehealth abortions have been on the rise since the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

  • Though the appeals court affirmed certain restrictions on mifepristone, they won't take effect in accordance with a Supreme Court stay.
  • However, should the Supreme Court allow the ruling to stand, or opts not to take up an appeal, access to medication abortion could become more restricted.

Of note: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have found that 95% of patients who used a virtual clinic had a complete abortion without additional medical intervention.

  • Their study, published in 2021, reinforced findings that medication abortion by mail is safe and effective even without routine pre-abortion ultrasounds.

What they're saying: If the high court reinstates the restrictions, "it will intensify the already devastating impact on historically disenfranchised and oppressed people in communities needing abortion care," Oriaku Njoku, executive director of National Network of Abortion Funds, told Axios.

State of play: In California, recently enacted laws aim to protect reproductive digital information and shield abortion providers and patients from bans, lawsuits and penalties in other states.

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom has also vowed not to cooperate with states that attempt to prosecute patients or doctors for receiving or providing reproductive care.

Zoom in: In San Francisco, city attorney David Chiu is leading the Legal Alliance for Reproductive Rights to provide free services to anyone experiencing abortion-related legal challenges, including patients and providers in other states.

  • Meanwhile, UCSF's Meg Autry is spearheading the development of an offshore, floating clinic in a bid to help people in states with abortion restrictions. The vessel would be located in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

What to watch: The state Legislature is weighing a bill that would safeguard California providers who mail abortion pills to patients in states where it may be illegal.

  • Several Bay Area physicians have backed the legislation, which was introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).
  • "I have a moral responsibility to provide the best care to my patients. Where they live should not be a barrier to that," Michele Gomez, an East Bay family doctor, wrote in an opinion for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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