In July 2020, a federal district court lifted the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s (“FDA”) restriction requiring patients to pick up the first drug of a medication abortion—mifepristone—at a healthcare facility. Soon after, an ongoing experiment with remote care for abortion expanded, as telemedicine did in other areas, and virtual clinics began offering no-touch abortions. Growth of virtual care stalled in January 2021 when the Supreme Court stayed a district court’s order pending the appeals process. But in April 2022, persuaded by the evidence of remote abortion’s safety and efficacy, the FDA suspended enforcement of the in-person rule for the course of the pandemic. On December 16, 2021, the FDA lifted the requirement that patients pick up mifepristone at a healthcare facility, clearing the way for supervised mail delivery and pharmacy dispensation.
The expansion of virtual clinics, however, is not without significant limitations. First, questions remain about how to implement the new FDA regulation, specifically regarding certified pharmacies, and several FDA restrictions on mifepristone remain in place. Second, about half the country prohibits telehealth for abortion by either banning all abortion or by requiring the physical presence of a healthcare professional. Third, participation in telemedicine depends on various forms of privilege. Patients must have a stable internet connection or smartphone as well as an uncomplicated pregnancy, which, in part because of U.S. health disparities, is more likely for wealthier and white people. Even with the expansion of remote care, the need for clinical spaces will not disappear; in fact, it will come under increasing pressure.
This Article maps the emergence of virtual abortion care and analyzes the potential trajectory of medication abortion access, given that the Supreme Court has overturned constitutional protections for abortion. It considers the limits of telehealth for abortion—who telehealth can reach and who it cannot. Those living in states that permit abortion will have new options for ending early pregnancies. Those residing in states hostile to abortion will have to seek cross-border care, carry pregnancies to term, or find other avenues to end pregnancies. But the portability of abortion pills, when mailed by prescribers or dispensed by certified pharmacies, will test how closely states officials (or anyone else) can police or impede access to medication abortion.