Medication abortions have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years. They’ve shown to be safe and effective when it comes to terminating a pregnancy with few side effects when specific conditions are met. However, new abortion “reversal” medications are being marketed across the U.S. and abroad to women who change their mind after taking the abortion medications. These treatments have not been scientifically proven and can endanger the lives of patients.
Dr. Eileen Reilly of the U.K. is under investigation after allegedly prescribing abortion “reversal” medication to an undercover agent. Find out why these drugs are considered so controversial.
What is Abortion “Reversal” Medication?
Many women choose to take a pill when terminating their pregnancies. It is usually more convenient and less painful to take medication than undergo surgery. Medication abortions include two drugs, mifepristone, taken first, and misoprostol, taken later. Mifepristone stops the pregnancy growth by blocking the hormone progesterone, while misoprostol makes the uterus contract to complete the abortion.
Numerous studies have shown that these drugs are both safe and effective. Demand has surged for medical abortions, particularly during the pandemic, considering these drugs can be taken at home.
Anti-abortion advocates and providers have been touting a new treatment known as abortion “reversal” medication; however, there’s no evidence to suggest that it actually works. The treatment involves several oral or injected doses of the hormone progesterone given over the course of several days.
Currently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) “does not support prescribing progesterone to stop a medical abortion.”
They reference a 2012 case in which six women were prescribed progesterone after taking mifepristone. Four continued their pregnancies, but, as the ACOG points out, the study wasn’t supervised by an international review board or ethical review committee. There was also no control group, which is essential for achieving sound results.
The treatment was invented by Dr. George Delgado. According to his biography, he is the “medical director” of the “pro-life” Catholic-oriented Culture of Life Family Services in San Diego. He has also made “hundreds of presentations” at anti-abortion fundraisers over the years.
His paper on the success of his treatment has been widely criticized throughout the medical community. The New England Journal of Medicine referred to his findings as an “unmonitored research experiment.”
Despite these critiques, many Republican politicians have adopted his language to support their anti-abortion policies. In 2019, North Dakota became the fifth state in the U.S. to require abortion providers to tell women that abortion “reversal” medication is an option if they change their mind after taking mifepristone.
The American Medical Association even fought the law in court, arguing it requires providers to “mislead and misinform their patients with messages that contradict reality and science”.
Dr. Daniel Grossman, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Bixby Center for Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, says, “This trend is troubling because of the lack of medical evidence demonstrating the safety and efficacy of the treatment. Laws promoting it essentially encourage women to participate in an unmonitored research experiment.”
The only high-quality study of the drug took place in 2019, but it was quickly halted when three women experienced life-threatening hemorrhaging.
Dr. Mitchell Creinin, a professor of obstetrics-gynecology at the University of California, Davis Health, who worked on and ultimately halted the study, said, “Women who have medical abortions bleed, but this was not typical medical abortion bleeding. It wasn’t safe for me to expose women to this treatment.”
Dr. Eileen Reilly is one of the latest providers to prescribe the drugs; at least that’s what an undercover agent with the organization openDemocracy has claimed. The agent was referred to Reilly after calling a hotline run by the U.S.-based anti-abortion organization Heartbeat International in search of a doctor.
Member of Parliament Nadia Whittome said she was “glad” openDemocracy was investigating. “U.K. doctors should not be working with anti-abortion activists to advise and prescribe a treatment that is unproven and dangerous,” she said.
According to the undercover agent, the operator from the hotline said Heartbeat International “helps[s] hundreds of women every day in the UK” while adding, “We are like the international abortion pill reversal line.”
After Reilly allegedly prescribed the progesterone, the agent said they were told by Reilly that “At the end of the day, you live in the UK, you’ve got a hospital there and if you were worried about the bleeding, you’d go get help.”
The country’s General Medical Council is now investigating the case. Investigators with openDemocracy said they called Dr. Reilly about the allegations before publishing them, but she “hung up” on them. Records show Reilly has made several comments supporting progesterone over the years. She even appeared in a video by the U.K.-based anti-abortion group March for Life U.K.
Melissa Upreti, the vice-chair of the United Nations, who’s fighting discrimination against women and girls in medicine, said, “Women who have been misled and subjected to medically dangerous procedures to supposedly reverse their abortions must be provided with appropriate medical assistance, options for legal recourse and reparations for the emotional and physical suffering caused to them. There can be no doubt that women are the victims here.”