Michigan lawmakers are exacting an attack on telemedicine abortion in the state, passing legislation in the Senate on Thursday that would amount to a blanket ban on doctors prescribing abortion medication remotely.
The bill would require patients seeking abortions to visit a doctor in person to obtain pregnancy-ending medication, blocking them from using video-streaming or other digital services as a means to access abortion. If the bill passes, it would extend an existing ban on telemedicine dating back to 2012.
Proponents of the legislation—who largely hail from the anti-abortion camp—argue that such restrictions are necessary to safeguard women against any life-threatening complications that could arise from terminating a pregnancy without supervision.
"Women who want a chemical abortion can still access them in the state of Michigan," Genevieve Marnon, the legislative director of Right to Life of Michigan, told local news site Petoskey News-Review. "This prevents people from Skyping with a doctor a hundred, thousands of miles away. If they have a complication, who are they going to follow up with?"
But recent studies have shown that telemedicine abortion is safe and effective, and a growing number of medical professionals and reproductive rights advocates support the method as a way to fill in crucial gaps in abortion access across the country.
Just last month, Dutch physician Rebecca Gomperts brought a version of Women on Web, the virtual abortion service website she founded in 2005, to the United States, thought to be the first of its kind in the country. The site, called Aid Access, allows patients to receive an online consultation with a doctor before receiving abortion pills by mail and administering them by themselves.
"The fact of matter is that Roe v. Wade has not guaranteed abortion access for many people for a long time," Yamani Hernandez, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, a group that helps supplement abortion expenses, told Broadly at the time of the site's launch. "We think access to medical abortion is part of a vision for the future where people can have the most access possible."
As Hernandez alludes, telemedicine abortion relies on the use of abortion pills—or medication abortion—a method of ending a pregnancy that has likewise been deemed safe and effective. Medication abortion earned the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration nearly two decades ago, and since then it's come to account for at least one-third of all abortion procedures.
On Thursday, Contraception, a reproductive health journal, published a study that found nearly half—49 percent—of women ages 18 to 49 were interested in "alternative models" of accessing medication abortion, including buying pills over the counter and obtaining them online.
"Offering women more choices in how they access medication abortion, including options where they can safely self-manage their own care, has the potential to expand access to care," the study concluded.
Yet as telemedicine and medication abortion become less taboo methods of terminating a pregnancy, states have become more rigorous in their attempts to restrict them. Just this month, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit against the Kansas attorney general for a law banning abortions obtained via telemedicine.
With new Democratic leadership soon taking office in Michigan, including in the governor's mansion and attorney general's office, it's likely Republican state senators' bid to extend Michigan's ban on telemedicine will fail. But for reproductive rights advocates, the fight for expanded access to telemedicine is still just unfolding.
"We’d like to see people not struggle to pay for their health care and we think telemedicine is a huge part of how to make that possible," Hernandez said. "Most people want to have choices and flexibility in when and how they have their abortions and make these decisions on their own terms."