Abortion drugs are legal in Florida. But how long?

There’s one method of abortion that doesn’t require surgery or anesthesia, and federal authorities say it’s safe to perform at home: abortion drugs.

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

John Stemberger, president of the Christian-conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said he expects the state’s Republican-led legislature to consider a six-week ban in next year’s session if the US Supreme Court upholds the Roe v. Wade of 1973, which stated that women have the constitutional right to abortion.

He believes GOP lawmakers should also focus on the drugs that induce home abortions, those who prescribe and give them, and those who are trying to get them out to women across Florida.

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

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

No abortion clinic required

Almost half of all abortions in Florida last year were performed with drugs – according to one of the highest rates in the country federal health records. 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 really heavy, cramping period,” he said Planned Parenthood. Passing some blood clots is normal, as is nausea and a low-grade fever. Most symptoms should clear up in 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); People 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 Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

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

The compatibility of childcare, work and compulsory schooling makes it impossible for many pregnant women to visit a clinic, she said. And those who live in rural areas or lack transportation may not be able to see a doctor repeatedly.

Florida’s clinics are shrinking under state regulation, 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 over 20%, according to the Guttmacher Institutean abortion rights research organization.

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

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

Florida bans telemedicine abortions

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

But for seven years Florida law requires patients to see a doctor in person at least 24 hours before taking their first pill. That eliminates medical abortion as an option for Floridians who for some reason can’t see a doctor in person.

Related: Anti-abortion opponents cheer possible overturning of Roe v. calf

Face-to-face visits allow doctors to counsel pregnant people and identify underage girls or victims of rape or human trafficking, Stemberger said.

However, screening patients for medical conditions can be done over the phone or through an online video call, Simon said. In her experience, women who are victims of rape or human trafficking often feel safer using telemedicine services than visiting 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 another barrier.”

An international plan

Florida isn’t the only state to ban telemedicine abortions: 18 other states have laws that either specifically prohibit the practice or, in accordance with other regulations, make it impossible, the authorities said Guttmacher Institutean abortion rights organization.

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

Related: Abortion’s Last Stand in the South: A post-Roe future is already happening in Florida

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

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

Aid Access is reviewing its pharmacy providers, Pitney said. But Stemberger, the conservative activist, believes telemedicine visits and mail-order prescriptions will lead to medical complications.

“You may be able to circumvent any (state and federal) measures to protect the health and safety of the mother,” Stemberger said.

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

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

If abortion is banned, people unable to travel will be forced to seek unsafe treatments. She fears that without regulation, the door will be opened to scammers to “market fake pills that attempt to perform an abortion”.

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

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

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