As the nation locked down for the coronavirus pandemic and some states used the virus as an excuse to further restrict abortion access, women around the country became concerned they might not be able to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. A new study suggests many of them may have turned to at-home options.
The study, released Tuesday by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, analyzed the number of requests sent to Aid Access, a website that mails abortion pills to women in the U.S., between January 1 and April 11. Across the country, they found a 27 percent increase in requests after March 20—the average date lockdown orders started in most states.
The largest increases in requests came from states like New York and New Jersey, where outbreaks were the most severe at the time, and from states like Texas and Ohio, where governors attempted to pause abortion services due to the pandemic. The researchers say this increase could be due to an increased demand for abortion services overall, because of economic concerns or fears of being pregnant during a pandemic, or because state abortion bans and fear of travel made at-home abortions a more easily accessible option.
The demand for medication abortion shot up most sharply in Texas, which banned all “nonessential” surgeries and medical procedures—including abortions—from March 22 to April 22. In that same time period, the researchers found, requests for abortion pills in Texas increased 94 percent. California, which had one of the largest outbreaks at the time, but no pandemic-related abortion bans, saw an increase of less than 30 percent.
The only state where requests for abortion pills decreased—Kentucky—doubled its number of clinics in March, increasing in-clinic abortion access.
Abortion pills are generally subject to intensive restrictions requiring them to be picked up in-person, from a specially registered pharmacy. A federal court judge granted a temporary halt to those restrictions this month, writing that the in-person requirement “presents a serious burden to many abortion patients” during the pandemic.
But Aid Access, which fills prescriptions online and ships them from India, is still engaged in a battle with the FDA over whether it should be allowed to operate at all. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration told The Daily Beast they were investigating the website for “potential violations of U.S. law.” Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, the owner of the website, sued the organization in September in an effort to continue operating. The site’s operations were temporarily paused in April due to international shipping restrictions caused by the pandemic.
Still, in the three months under study alone, the site received nearly 50,000 requests for abortion pills.
“Our findings suggest that telemedicine models for medication abortion should be a policy priority,” the researchers concluded. "When in-clinic abortion services are not accessible, people may seek alternative ways of accessing time-sensitive care.”