For the past few weeks, New York City has been blanketed with ads for a brand-new telemedicine site called Hers, with pastel-toned posters depicting a diverse group of millennial women clad in light-colored clothing, urging them to go online to buy their birth control pills or give their libidos a boost.
Hers, an offshoot of the male-focused telemedicine site Hims, is just one of several telemedicine sites that cater to female reproductive health concerns. Lemonaid and Nurx offer online access to a range of similar services, and even Planned Parenthood has thrown its hat into the ring with Planned Parenthood Direct, which can connect users to birth control and UTI treatments. But one reproductive health concern is noticeably absent from most telemedicine sites’ inventories: abortion.
Only two telemedicine websites will send abortion pills to people in the United States today.
Decades of research have shown that abortion pills (specifically, the combination of mifepristone and misoprostol) are a safe and effective method to induce abortions, and one that’s wholly compatible with telemedicine. Yet due to a combination of regulations, only two telemedicine websites will send abortion pills to people in the United States today. One of them, TelAbortion, is an ongoing research study that’s been approved for use in Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, New York, and Maine. The other option, Aid Access, is currently under investigation by the FDA for failing to comply with the strict distribution protocol required for abortion pills.
Despite a demonstrated history of safety and consumer need — particularly in areas where abortion clinics are rare — abortion medications are widely viewed as far too dangerous to freely distribute online. Meanwhile, telemedicine is being used to treat everything from hair loss to aging skin to UTIs. Some telemedicine services even offer access to Addyi, a controversial female libido enhancer that experts have argued is dubiously effective at best and downright dangerous at worst. But even in places like Texas, where recent legislation has created an incredibly friendly environment for telemedicine, abortion providers are still legally required to be in the same room as their patients when dispensing their services.
The discrepancy between the access restrictions around abortion pills and the availability of medications like Addyi tells an uncomfortable story about the regulatory gatekeeping that keeps women from fully taking control of their own reproductive destinies — and how sexual health needs are prioritized across the country.