Proponents of abortion rights in the U.S. are still up in arms over the new Texas law that bans abortions past six weeks, which is before many women know they’re pregnant. The law is having an effect on providers across the pond, as well.
Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, a physician from the Netherlands who works in Austria, says she will continue to prescribe abortion pills to women in Texas via telehealth despite the ban.
The new law, which went into effect September 1, effectively bans abortions after embryonic cardiac activity can be detected, which usually occurs after six weeks of gestation. However, the law isn’t being enforced by state officials. Individuals can sue anyone that provides an abortion past six weeks for up to $10,000. Critics say the law turns ordinary citizens into bounty hunters.
However, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed another bill into law that criminalizes the distribution of abortion pills by mail. The second law will go into effect in December, and violations could result in thousands of dollars in fines and a prison sentence of up to two years.
These pills are a combination of two medicines, mifepristone and misoprostol, used to terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks. The FDA first approved the treatment in 2000. When taken effectively, they are designed to trigger a miscarriage.
While these drugs remain legal throughout much of the US, states have different laws in the books that determine when women can access them and who can prescribe them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this method was used in 40% of all U.S. abortions in 2018.
The World Health Organization says it’s safe for women to take them on their own, without the direct supervision of a healthcare professional.
Standing Up for Abortion Rights
Gomperts has spent her career helping women all over the world access abortion options. She founded the organization called Aid Access in 2018 to provide abortion pills to women in the U.S.
Women seeking an abortion can contact Aid Access, where they’re asked to fill out an online consultation form. They provide information about their pregnancy, including the date of their last missed period, whether they have other medical conditions, as well as their home address.
The organization will try to put them in contact with a U.S.-based provider that can prescribe the pills. If the woman lives in an area like Texas where abortions are illegal after six weeks, they may be connected to Gomperts herself.
She can fill out the prescription online and recommend a local pharmacy in the U.S. where the patient can pick it up. These pills typically cost $500 or more, but Aid Access offers them for just $100 or less, based on financial need.
However, the group sends out generic versions of mifepristone and misoprostol, which have not been approved by the FDA.
She says will continue prescribing the pills despite the recent ban.
“I don’t care about six weeks,” Gomperts said. “It’s another law that is not based on any scientific evidence, human rights, or common sense,” she said. “I will provide [prescriptions for abortion pills] until 10 weeks of pregnancy like I’ve always done.”
But is it legal?
Gomperts says the service is legal in all jurisdictions in which it operates.
“Where I work from, it’s legal to prescribe the medications. And so I’ll do that. And the pharmacy that I refer to is allowed to mail the medicines, on a prescription of a doctor, to the women. So (the new Texas law) has no impact on what we do,” she added.
The law in question criminalizes providers for performing or helping a woman access an abortion, but it doesn’t outlaw women terminating their own pregnancies.
Experts say that while it’s illegal to import drugs from abroad in the US, the FDA doesn’t tend to go after individuals who are bringing medications over for personal use.
In 2019, the FDA sent a cease-and-desist order to Aid Access asking them to suspend their operations. They argued that the “new drugs may not be legally introduced or delivered for introduction into interstate commerce without prior approval from FDA.” They also said mifepristone is marketed in the U.S. under the brand name Mifeprex, which is subject to special regulations.
The “prescriber must have the ability to: assess the duration of the pregnancy accurately, diagnose ectopic pregnancies, and provide surgical intervention in cases of incomplete abortion or severe bleeding, or to have made arrangements for others to provide such care,” the FDA said.
“Failure to correct these violations may result in FDA regulatory action, including seizure or injunction, without further notice,” it continued.
Aid Access responded to the letter by saying its services are legal under the precedent set by Roe v. Wade; however, a judge rejected the organization’s claims in part because the FDA had followed through with its threat.
According to Richard Hearn, the attorney who represented Aid Access in the suit:
“(The FDA) sent that threatening letter, but it took no action based upon that letter. All of our drugs were going through. The FDA and the Postal Service wasn’t stopping any. They weren’t arresting women. They weren’t doing anything like that. Women still have an option in Texas, just like they do in Idaho and other very red states.”
Christie Pitney, a doctor that prescribes the drugs for Aid Access in California and Massachusetts, says women can take the pills on their own and go to the emergency room if they have any complications without revealing that they had an abortion.
“If there’s ever a legal concern or just, you know, a concern of stigma, or they don’t want their family to know, then patients can always just say that they think that they’re having a miscarriage,” Pitney said. “There’s no way that [the hospital] will ever be able to tell the difference between a miscarriage and abortion.”
Regardless of what happens with the Texas abortion law, Gomperts intends to continue her work.
“I think that women living in Texas deserve to have access in their own state, near where they live,” she said. “The U.S. should take better care of its pregnant women.”