Maine Family Planning, a health clinic chain, unveiled a plan Monday to expand abortion access via telemedicine at 16 of its centers. This makes Maine one of three states, according to the organization, to utilize such technology for medication abortion services.
Telemedicine enables pregnant people seeking care to consult with a physician through a video conference to determine if a medication abortion—an abortion induced through pills prescribed by a physician—is viable. It enables the doctor to remotely authorize access to abortion-inducing medication, if both client and clinician determine that such a course of action is the best way to terminate a pregnancy.
Although the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has stated that telemedicine can improve access to “effective and safe” medication abortions, 18 states have effectively banned the practice by requiring clinicians to be physically present during the “procedure,” which consists of nothing more than taking two doses of medication.
“Our decision to provide medication abortion via telemedicine is driven by a commitment to access,” Maine Family Planning explained in a statement released Monday. “While abortion is legal in Maine and throughout the United States, it’s not always accessible to those with few resources, including those who live in rural communities.”
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ACOG officials made a nearly identical statement last June when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a telemedicine abortion ban instituted by the state’s board of health was unconstitutional.
“Medication abortion care delivered through telemedicine can be particularly beneficial to rural women, whose reproductive health needs can be underserved due to geographic limitations. Without remote access to medication abortion, more women would have to delay or even [forgo] abortion care,” ACOG stated.
Maine has one of the country’s highest proportions of residents classified as rural, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Maine’s DHHS notes that the state’s rural communities tend to have higher poverty rates and lower incomes, making a strong case for remote medical services for those who may not otherwise have the means to access care.
“Patients who would otherwise have to drive long distances to access services in Bangor, Augusta, or Portland may now be able to access care at an additional 16 Maine Family Planning centers,” Maine Family Planning stated.
Leah Coplon, Maine Family Planning’s director of abortion services, told Rewire that women in predominantly rural counties like Aroostook County and Washington County will now be able to access medication abortion care.
For those in rural communities seeking abortion care, she said, “The most significant costs, in addition to the procedure itself, include the cost of transportation, gas, sometimes an overnight [stay], child-care costs, and the cost of missing work. So if a woman can access the service 45 minutes from her house rather than having to travel three or four hours, it becomes a lot easier.”
Maine Family Planning clinics provide lab work and follow-up consultations, along with providing consultations via teleconference, during which clients can ask questions about the procedure.
Maine Family Planning’s announcement comes amid a wave of clinic closures nationwide, part of a broader attack on reproductive health led by Republican state lawmakers. One hundred sixty-two abortion providers have closed their doors or stopped offering the procedure around the country since 2011, according to Bloomberg Business. Only 21 new clinics opened in that time period.
“I certainly hope that this sends a message about how important it is to continue to increase access [to abortion services], and also encourages other states and providers to recognize that this is a service they can make available to their patients within their current settings,” Coplon said. “The more providers and the more states that take on providing medication abortion to their patients and recognize it as a part of basic reproductive health care, the fewer problems we’ll have with access.”