It’s only been about three weeks since the Federal Drug Administration changed the label for the country’s most widely used abortion drug, mifepristone. In Texas, advocates expected this would be a big deal, because Texas law mandates physicians administer the drug exactly like it says on the label—even though those methods weren’t common medical practice.
It’s only been a couple of weeks, but Sarah Wheat with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas already sees more women using medication abortions.
“We’ve had almost a four-fold increase just this month in the number of women who are once again able to choose this option," she says.
Before the FDA changed its label, Wheat says, the state’s controversial abortion law from 2013 was making it really hard for women to choose a medication abortion over a surgical abortion.
“We had only about one percent of our patients [who] were actually able to choose medication abortion and that was in large part due to the requirement that they had to make four separate visits to the health center," Wheat says.
And those four separate trips got a lot longer since that same abortion law went into effect. Earlier this year, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project released a study looking at the effects of nearly half the state’s abortion clinics closing down in the past few years. Researchers found women who lost their closest clinic faced on average a 70-mile one-way trip to the next closest provider. Liza Fuentes was a co-investigator in that study.
“The fact that we found that, for women with a closed clinic, 37 percent of them said they wanted a medication abortion were unable to get it and ended up having to schedule a surgical procedure isn’t so surprising since we know that medication abortion access was highly restricted," she says.
The report says medical abortions have dropped 70 percent since the new law. Another reason for the drop: that old FDA label required women to take an extra dose of the abortion medication, which meant an extra trip. Now that's been eliminated with the new FDA label. And, because a lower dose is now recommended, doctors can prescribe a medication abortion 10 weeks into a pregnancy. The cutoff used to be roughly 50 days.
Wheat says all these recent changes are what she thinks has led to the uptick in use.
“We know that many women want this option and choose this option, and we expect that about 40 percent of our patients will once again choose medication abortion," she says.
Of course, the future of access to any kind of abortion in Texas depends on how the United States Supreme Court rules on a case challenging the state’s 2013 abortion law. Justices are expected to announce a ruling this summer.