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Free the abortion pill

Free the abortion pill July 2, 2021
By Barbara Alvarez
Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern
Freedom From Religion Foundation
This July Fourth marks 245 years since the Declaration of Independence was passed by the Continental Congress, a body of delegates for the then-colony states. We memorialize this bold move as a catalyst to the forming of the United States of America and the U.S. Constitution, which declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And yet, women across the nation are unable to exercise independence over their bodies because of religiously rooted legislation that restricts abortion care and access. In honor of this Independence Day, let’s act to free the abortion pill and make abortion available to millions of women across the United States.

Despite the fact that 59 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, anti-abortion legislation has significantly ramped up. In fact, 2021 is set to be a record-setting year for abortion restrictions. For example, in just one week in April, 28 anti-abortion bills were signed into law. Many of these laws are Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws, which are designed to make abortion care burdensome to medical providers by imposing medically unnecessary restrictions, such as needless staffing requirements, hospital admitting privileges and superfluous facility regulations.

Because of these laws, access to abortion facilities in the United States is extremely scarce. Indeed, a study by the University of California-San Francisco found that 27 large cities in the United States are considered “abortion deserts,” where women have to travel over 100 miles one way to reach an abortion facility.

Since 13 states require that patients have at least two in-person visits to the clinic for an abortion, this means that women must budget for gas mileage, child care and time off from work. Additionally, the Hyde Amendment, which restricts abortion coverage for federally funded healthcare plans like Medicaid, puts safe abortion care out of the reach of many low-income women. At best, the prohibition forces low-income women to forgo paying utility bills and rent or buying food for themselves and their children so that they can scrape together the $500-$3,000 cost of an abortion.

Medication abortion, first approved by the FDA in 2000, is a safe and effective way to terminate a pregnancy and democratize abortion care. When available via mail or pharmacy, it defrays costs associated with transportation, childcare and work arrangements. And yet, the FDA has designated medication abortion to be part of the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) program, which is for drugs known to be “associated with potential serious complications or contraindications, such as antipsychotics, opioids, testosterone, and drugs used to treat cancer, acne and multiple sclerosis.” This means that abortion medication must be obtained in-person at a hospital or abortion clinic. However, medication abortion pills are 99.6 percent effective, with less than 1 percent risk of major complications and should not be part of this program.

Health care and medical organizations agree. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a group of 58,000 members, released a statement stating that the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy program “is no longer necessary for mifepristone, given its history of safe use. The REMS requirement is inconsistent with requirements for other drugs with similar or greater risks, especially in light of the significant benefit that mifepristone provides to patients.”

Indeed, the placing of abortion medication on the program is a politically motivated stance that was ushered in by George Bush the Senior, an anti-abortion hero to the Religious Right. Due to the pandemic that has led to 604,000 deaths in the United States, the FDA has temporarily lifted these in-person requirements, making abortion pills available directly through mail or through a mail-order pharmacy in states permitting medication abortion. Additionally, the FDA is reviewing the abortion pill and will provide an update by November about its future status.

While medication abortion via telemedicine would allow millions of women to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion, it is only available in the 22 states that haven’t imposed bans on telemedicine for abortion. In fact, 19 states prohibit telemedicine for abortion and 12 states issued policies that attempted to limit abortion access, deeming it “nonessential” —  demonstrating flagrant disregard for women’s health care. And with the Supreme Court slated to hear a major anti-abortion case that could effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, liberalizing laws on medication abortion is more necessary than ever.

The Women’s Health Protection Act seeks to rectify barriers  by protecting the right to access abortion care by ending medically unnecessary TRAP laws. This has the potential to make telemedicine for abortion care, as well as care at abortion clinics, accessible in all 50 states and territories. The Freedom From Religion Foundation submitted a formal congressional testimony in support of the Women’s Health Protection Act.

In a secular nation, our laws related to health care should reflect science, not religion. Abortion restrictions are not evidence-based nor do they protect women’s welfare and health. To free the pill and allow millions of women to have independence over their own bodies, we must call on our representatives and senators to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara Alvarez was a major winner in last year’s FFRF essay competition for graduate students, writing about the bible’s role in the abortion battle. She is FFRF’s first Anne Nicol Gaylor Reproductive Rights Intern, a program set up to memorialize FFRF’s principal founder, who was an early abortion rights activist and author of the book Abortion is a Blessing.

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