According to preliminary data analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization on sexual and reproductive health topics, abortion via medication accounted for more than half of all abortions in 2020.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved mifepristone for abortion in 2000. Used in combination with misoprostol, this abortion method had been steadily gaining in popularity since its approval by the FDA. In 2001, medication abortion accounted for just 6 percent of U.S. abortions. That number climbed to 24 percent in 2011, 39 percent in 2017 and jumped to 54 percent in 2020.
Every three years, the Guttmacher Institute collects data from all abortion providers in the United States. So far, it has received information from 75 percent of providers, which is why the data is still considered "preliminary." The final estimates are slated for release in late 2022, but Guttmacher expects "the final proportion of all abortions represented by medication abortion is likely to closely match the current estimate."
Understanding medication abortion
Medication abortion is considered an extremely safe and effective method that is approved for up to 10 weeks gestation, though the World Health Organization (WHO) considers this method safe up to 12 weeks. Research indicates that medication abortion has a 95 percent efficacy rate.
Because medication abortion can be done in the safety and privacy of one's own home, it's not surprising this method became the means for the majority of all abortions in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Guttmacher Institute notes, this method is also "especially useful in addressing logistical burdens abortion patients often face when they have to visit a provider to obtain care, such as arranging for child care and time off work and paying for transportation costs."
How the evolution of restrictions has affected this method
Until recently, there were restrictions on mifepristone—people seeking abortions had to obtain the pills in person from a medical provider. But due to the pandemic, the FDA announced a temporary pause on the restrictions in April 2020, allowing patients to receive the medication via mail and telehealth. In December 2021, the FDA announced the in-person requirements would be permanently removed. With the lifted restrictions and steady upward trend, it seems likely the percentage of medication abortions was even higher in 2021.
Despite federal regulations, however, many states have laws in place that limit or prohibit access to medication abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 32 states require the pills be administered by a physician even though the FDA regulations don't have that requirement, 19 states don't allow medication abortion via telemedicine, and three states have banned the mailing of abortion pills, including Texas—which also prohibits the use of medication abortion past seven weeks, which is inconsistent with the FDA's guidance. Further, 16 states have introduced new bans and restrictions on medication abortion already this year.
As the data shows, the availability of medication abortion has played an important role in health care, both because of the pandemic and as access to abortion clinics has become increasingly limited.
Abortion is a medical procedure that is currently illegal or restricted in some portions of the United States. For more information about the legality of abortion in your area, please consult a local healthcare provider.