Abortion drugs are legal in Florida. But for how much longer?

There is one method of abortion that doesn’t require surgery or anesthesia, and federal regulators say it can be done safely at home: abortion drugs.

Florida law prohibits doctors from prescribing the drugs online or over the phone — a practice that was approved by federal regulators in 2020 — but anti-abortion activists want to go further.

John Stemberger, chairman of the Florida Family Policy Council, a Christian conservative, said he expects the state’s Republican-led Legislature to consider a six-week ban during the session of the next year if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that found that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

He thinks GOP lawmakers should also focus on which drugs cause home abortions, which ones prescribe and dispense them, and which ones try to get them to women across Florida.

“There should be a complete legal ban on all mail order abortion drugs,” Stemberger said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The state should also require additional certification for physicians, clinicians and pharmacists who wish to prescribe and dispense abortifacient drugs, he added. Abortion rights groups say they are preparing for this scenario.

No abortion clinic needed

Nearly half of all abortions in Florida last year were performed with medication — among the highest rates in the nation — according to federal health records. The treatment consists of two drugs taken over 48 hours: The first drug, mifepristone, terminates the pregnancy; and the second, misoprostol, helps the body expel it.

“It’s kind of like a very heavy period of cramping,” according to Planned Parenthood. Passing a few blood clots is normal, as is nausea and a mild fever. Most symptoms should disappear after about 24 hours.

Treatment is only an option in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy and cannot be performed in patients with an intrauterine device (IUD); those with severe heart or lung disease and bleeding disorders; or those taking blood thinners or certain types of steroids.

The drugs allow people who don’t have access to an abortion clinic to have the procedure, said Melissa Simon, vice chair for research in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Northwestern University.

Related: What you need to know about the future of abortion in Florida

Balancing childcare, work and school obligations makes visiting a clinic impossible for many pregnant women, she said. And those who live in rural areas or have no transportation may be unable to make repeated trips to see a doctor.

Florida clinics are shrinking under state regulations, making access even more difficult. Since 1999, lawmakers have passed seven bills restricting access to abortion. From 2011 to 2017, Florida lost seven abortion providers and the number of abortions fell by more than 20%, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research organization.

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Visiting a clinic is not only time consuming, Simon said, but it can also be daunting. She remembers running the gauntlet of anti-abortion picketers outside the Chicago clinic where she regularly provides abortion services.

“It’s a scary experience,” she said, “to have to walk through lines of protesters and get yelled at.”

Florida bans telehealth abortions

In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that patients no longer needed to see a doctor in person to obtain abortion pills, saying doctors could prescribe the drugs over the phone or online and pharmacies could deliver the drugs. pills in the mail.

But for the past seven years, Florida law has required patients to meet with a doctor in person at least 24 hours before taking the first pill. This eliminates medical abortion as an option for Floridians who cannot see a doctor in person for some reason.

Related: Anti-abortion supporters applaud possible overturning of Roe v. wade

In-person visits allow doctors to offer counseling to pregnant women and identify underage girls or victims of rape or human trafficking, Stemberger said.

However, screening patients for medical conditions can be done by phone or online video call, Simon said. In her experience, she said, women who have been raped or trafficked often feel safer using telehealth services than going to a clinic in person.

“There is absolutely no medical or even scientific reason” to require an in-person visit, Simon said. “The rule just creates one more barrier.”

An international project

Florida isn’t the only state to ban telehealth abortions: 18 other states have laws that explicitly ban the practice or make them impossible to perform under other regulations, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy organization. abortion rights.

But there are ways around the law and future restrictions, said Christie Pitney, a certified nurse midwife with Aid Access, an organization that offers telehealth appointments so people can get medical abortions in the states. -United.

Related: The Last Abortion Battle in the South: A Post-Roe Future Is Already Happening in Florida

In states like Florida, Aid Access refers patients to Austrian physician Rebecca Gompers, who founded the organization. The drugs are then packaged by an India-based pharmacy and delivered to the patient within one to two weeks.

Because Gompers and the online pharmacy are both outside state jurisdiction, the service would remain open to Florida residents even if the state banned abortions outright, Pitney said. Florida law only punishes abortion providers, not patients.

Aid Access checks their pharmacy providers, Pitney said. But Stemberger, the conservative activist, believes telehealth visits and mail-order prescriptions will lead to medical complications.

“They can potentially circumvent all (state and federal regulatory) measures intended to protect the health and safety of the mother,” Stemberger said.

Related: Abortion stories from years ago. It was always complicated.

Simon, the doctor at Northwestern University, shares this concern, but believes it is riskier to deny access to legal abortion, including medical abortion.

If abortion is banned, she said, people who cannot afford to travel will be forced to seek unsafe treatments. She fears that without regulation, the door could be opened to fraudsters marketing “fake pills that attempt to perform an abortion”.

Keeping abortion legal and accessible keeps bad actors away and protects mothers, Simon said.

“If Roe v. Wade is overturned, that doesn’t mean abortion is gone,” she said. “It just won’t be safe.”

About Terry Gongora

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