As New Mexico lawmakers debate scrapping an outdated law that criminalizes abortion, national abortion rights advocates are scrambling to regain lost ground in the fight to return the so-called pills abortions no longer available.
At issue is access to the combination of two drugs – mifepristone and misoprostol – that women can self-administer to end an unwanted pregnancy at home.
Abortion rights advocates say the drugs are safer than some over-the-counter drugs and widely used in the rest of the world, where women can order them by mail. But they remain subject to restrictions in the United States, which have been interpreted by some providers as requiring women to visit a health clinic to obtain them in person.
In New Mexico, that means traveling to Santa Fe or Albuquerque.
Restrictions were temporarily lifted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, after a federal judge in Maryland ruled in July that it was unreasonable to require women to be at risk of exposure to the coronavirus by picking them up in person at a medical facility.
But a Jan. 12 U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturned that view, referring the matter to the federal Food and Drug Administration for review of restrictions. That prompted abortion providers across the country and at least one in New Mexico to again demand that patients come in person to get the drugs.
Emily Cohen, a physician at Southwestern Women’s Options in Albuquerque, said the clinic was “thrilled” when the federal court cleared the way for providers to mail the drugs. But she quit after the recent Supreme Court decision.
“It was really disappointing,” she said. “It’s really hard having to tell people who expect to receive it in the mail that they have to pick it up. We are absolutely committed to pushing for these restrictions to be changed so that we can provide them in the future. But at this time we only distribute in the clinic due to our understanding of what the FDA requires.
“The decision was a setback,” said Francine Coeytaux, a Los Angeles-based abortion rights activist who successfully lobbied in the 1990s for emergency contraception, sometimes called the “morning after pill.” “, is available without a prescription.
She co-founded a website, plancpills.org, in 2016 to provide information on medical abortions.
Coeytaux said she hopes the Supreme Court’s order asking the FDA to review the matter could end unnecessary drug restrictions.
“Let’s get to the bottom of why these pills were restricted,” she said in a recent phone interview. “It was never based on science. It has always been political. We’ve had 20 years of continuous data and movement in the rest of the world, with millions of people around the world safely getting these pills without a prescription and moving on with their lives. Where here we got stuck with these restrictions that were politically motivated.
According to the Plan C website, abortion pills received FDA approval 20 years ago and are “safer than taking Tylenol.”
About 40% of all abortions in the United States are medical abortions, according to the website.
Coeytaux and co-founder Elisa Wells started Plan C in 2016 to share information about online abortion pills and self-managed abortion, according to the group’s website.
Soon after, according to the website, the women noticed online pharmacies – some outside the country – selling “abortion kits” and began researching and testing what the pharmacies provided. He published a “Plan C Report Card” on the sources from which people were getting the pills online.
In 2018, according to the website, dozens of websites, mostly based in the United States, were selling abortion pills online.
In 2019, the Plan C website received over 50,000 visits per month from across the United States.
After the pandemic hit last spring, Plan C sent a letter to medical providers across the country, asking them to consider providing telemedicine and direct-shipped pills to patients during the pandemic, and “hundreds have answered the call”.
“The pandemic has helped pull up the rug to show that if we as providers want to help people have safe abortions during something like the pandemic, we have the tools in our hands,” Coeytaux said. .
It’s perhaps unsurprising that anti-abortion activists take a dim view of drugs. Abortion Free New Mexico spokeswoman Tara Shaver said Friday the group supports the Supreme Court’s decision. “Essentially our view is that when these pills can be mailed out, you’re essentially making every household an abortion clinic,” she said.
Two longtime abortion rights advocates — including Marie Bass who lives in Santa Fe — hosted a webinar Jan. 12 aimed at educating women about medical abortion options.
Coeytaux said the webinar sparked interest from New Mexico providers, but the Supreme Court’s ruling the same day — and the ongoing abortion rights controversy — had a chilling effect. on some who planned to start sending the pills.
Coeytaux had offered at the end of January to help The New Mexican obtain interviews with two vendors who had agreed to start shipping the pills, but she later said the vendors were unwilling to be identified as the legislature debated scrapping the law that criminalizes abortions. She said on Thursday she did not know whether those suppliers intended to move forward with shipping the pills.
“It’s literally changing day by day,” she said. “The decision has pulled the wool under many of these providers and many have put these services on hold as they try to determine if they can continue to move forward in light of the decision.”