Originally published in Vox on June 22, 2022
Medication abortion, or taking a combination of the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol, is an increasingly common method for ending pregnancies in the United States. Reasons vary and overlap: Some women lack access to in-person abortion clinics; others prefer to end pregnancies in the comfort of their own home. Others seek out the pills because they cost far less than surgical abortion.
With more in-person clinics shuttering and a Supreme Court that’s threatening to overturn Roe v. Wade, a small but growing number of reproductive experts have been encouraging discussion of an idea called “advance provision” — or, more colloquially, stocking up on abortion pills in case one needs them later.
It’s an idea that has merit: Mifepristone has a shelf life of about five years, misoprostol about two, and both drugs work better the earlier in a pregnancy you take them. In states that are ramping up abortion restrictions, there’s often a race against the clock to access care. In Texas, for example, if you don’t realize until eight weeks in that you’re pregnant — which could be only a couple of weeks after a missed period — you would have already passed the state’s new legal deadline for obtaining abortion pills. But if you had already stored them in your home, or your friend or neighbor had, then you’d be able to take them.
In a 2018 nationally representative survey of women ages 18 to 49, 44 percent expressed support for advance provision, and 22 percent said they were personally interested in it. Those who had previously had a medication abortion and those who reported facing greater barriers to reproductive health care were more likely to support the idea.
Data on these kinds of abortions — often called “self-managed” or “self-administered” — are harder to track. Research published in 2020 estimated that 7 percent of women will self-manage an abortion in their lifetime, though this was calculated with the assumption that Roe was still in place. New Guttmacher data published last week on US abortion incidence found there were 8 percent more abortions in 2020 than in 2017, but self-managed abortions are excluded from this count.
“We know there are thousands of self-managed abortions that we aren’t capturing,” Rachel Jones, a Guttmacher research scientist, told Vox. “If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, and abortion becomes illegal in 26 states and people can’t travel to another state, then self-managed is going to be the only other option they have for an abortion.”
Talking more frankly about self-managed abortion goes against longstanding American cultural norms. For years US reproductive rights groups stressed that the decision to end a pregnancy “was made between a woman and her doctor.” Internationally, where abortion has been more heavily criminalized, there is less pressure to involve medical professionals. It was in the legally restrictive context of Brazil in the late 1980s that women first pioneered the use of misoprostol to self-manage their abortions.
Rebecca Gomperts, the Dutch physician who in 2018 founded Aid Access to deliver abortion pills to US patients, has been one of the most vocal advocates for advance provision, and began offering it as an option to people in all 50 states last fall. Costs for the pills range from $110 to $150, with a sliding scale for those who lack funds. Recently, in Politico, Gomperts encouraged doctors to begin prescribing mifepristone and misoprostol to those who are not pregnant, so they have the medication available if they need it later.
“Abortion pills are something that, actually, you cannot die from,” she said. “There’s no way that you can overdose on it. And what we know from research is that you don’t need to do an ultrasound for a medical abortion.”
The idea of getting medication in advance of need is nothing new. Doctors also used to commonly prescribe emergency contraception to women before it became available over the counter.
Right now large mainstream abortion rights groups are mostly staying quiet on advance provision, leaving lesser-known organizations like Aid Access and Plan C to try to get out the word. (NARAL and Guttmacher declined to comment, and Planned Parenthood did not return requests for comment.)
Aid Access and Forward Midwifery are among the few groups currently offering US patients the option to order pills in advance, though Elisa Wells, co-director of Plan C, said she knows others are considering it. “I was just having a conversation with a provider in Montana,” she told me. “We believe it will become more common. Sometimes we call it the ‘just in case’ plan, because unplanned pregnancy is so common.”
It’s a safe option for most patients
When it comes to safely ending pregnancies, medication abortion is over 95 percent successful, according to Guttmacher. Less than 0.4 percent of patients require hospitalization. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has also affirmed medication abortion as a safe method to terminate pregnancy, one with very low risk of complications.
Research published earlier this year in the medical journal Lancet found self-managed abortions specifically to be very effective, and with high rates of patient satisfaction.
Gomperts also urges more attention on misoprostol-only abortions, which are common internationally. The drug can be easier for women to access since misoprostol is less tightly regulated; it’s used for other ailments including stomach ulcers and managing miscarriages, and is sold over the counter in many countries.
While medication abortion is a safe option for almost everyone with an early pregnancy, the pills are not recommended for people who take blood thinners, who have bleeding disorders, or who are at high risk of ectopic pregnancies. (Ultrasounds are recommended for those in this latter category.)
Still, one upside of advance provision — and medication abortion generally — is the greater number of people who could potentially provide the pills, including primary care doctors. Another upside is that it could be easier to share pills with those who need the medication quickly but lack access to it. Research suggests the drugs are best taken within the first 10 to 12 weeks of a pregnancy.
Paying attention to legal risks and criminalization
Outside of groups that exploit international law like Aid Access, advance provision is unlikely to be a legal option in every state. Some states, for example, require patients to get ultrasounds before a provider can give them abortion pills. Other states are cracking down on abortion pills themselves.
While few states currently ban self-managed abortion outright, many have existing laws that overzealous prosecutors could use to go after women, like fetal homicide statutes. “I am concerned that if people stockpile, without knowing the legal risks or how to cover their digital footprints, they could be subject to criminalization,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, founder of the abortion storytelling group We Testify.
The National Right to Life Foundation also released model legislation in mid-June that encourages states to criminalize those who “aid or abet” illegal abortions, including those who provide instructions over the phone or internet about self-managed methods.
Even in states with fewer legal concerns, advance provision won’t be the right option for everyone. “It’s a potentially high cost for a patient that is unlikely to be covered by insurance,” said Daniel Grossman, a physician and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California San Francisco. Not everyone can afford to spend $150 to have a backup method available, and some people will still need or prefer in-person clinic care.
It hasn’t gone mainstream, yet
In the days following the leaked draft of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, telehealth abortion providers reported spikes in internet searches and pill orders. Still, most Americans lack familiarity with not only abortion medication but also the few groups that currently provide the pills in advance. Some activists say leaders and more well-resourced organizations should do more to promote self-managed abortion as an option.
In December 2021, three UCSF reproductive health researchers, including Grossman, published an article calling advance provision “an unexplored care model that we believe holds promise and merits further study.”
Grossman told Vox that he believes more people should ask their primary care and reproductive health providers if they’d be open to prescribing or giving them abortion pills to store for later use. “Even if the doctor doesn’t want to, I think it’s worth just sparking a conversation with them and get their provider thinking,” he said. Grossman previously told Jezebel he’s found it challenging to get other researchers and health care providers to give advance provision the attention it deserves.
“We have ibuprofen in case of a headache, cough syrup in case of a cold, and Plan B in case of a broken condom,” said Bracey Sherman of We Testify. “It’s already normal for other health care and we should normalize it for abortion.”
Wells, from Plan C, said the historical restrictions placed on abortion have likely made some groups and individuals more reticent to talk about advance provision. “I think there’s probably a lot of fear about not wanting to break any rules,” she said.
Another factor limiting discussion, Wells suggested, is the way abortion has been heavily medicalized in the US, to the point where people believe the drugs have to be or are best administered by a medical professional. Attitudes are different internationally, she said.
“We have become so invested in saying that we need to have safe abortions and that doctors and clinicians and the clinics can provide that,” Wells said. “Clinicians have done a wonderful job, and we have to have all these different types of care options available, but [self-managed abortions] can be a bit of a threatening message to that whole system.”