Study profiling American Women Seeking Abortion Pills Online

Is More a Marketing Report Than a Study

Part One of Two

By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D. NRL Director of Education & Research

It comes as no secret to readers of NRL News Today that abortion advocates are aggressively pushing to have the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorize abortion pills to be prescribed over the internet and delivered by mail. To that end, they are publishing studies and statements by medical and other academic “experts” claiming that these “self-managed” abortions are safe, effective, and in great demand. And they are advertising that these DIY (Do-It-Yourself) abortions offer a way for women to get around onerous laws passed by pro-lifers.

So do we learn anything new from an October 17, 2019 study “Demand for Self-Managed Abortion Through an Online Telemedicine Service in the United States” published in the American Journal of Public Health[https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2019.305369]?

Surprisingly, yes. In Part One of this Two-Part series, we’ll profile the backgrounds of the researchers who published the study. As we’ll see, this study’s agenda is to promote self-managed abortion, establish a “need” or demand for it in the U.S., with the tacit assurance that these self-induced abortions are safe.

Put another way, “Demand for Self-Managed Abortion Through an Online Telemedicine Service in the United States” reveals more about how well (or not) their campaign is proceeding; how many women are allegedly looking for these mail order pills; and who the advocates involved in this campaign are and how they operate.

The data and the details tell a different story than the one advocates have been pushing on a compliant media.

A not so objective research team

A study team from a major American university publishing in a prestigious medical journal is supposed to give one the impression of disinterested, scientific scholarship. However even a quick look at the names of the researchers, their affiliations, and the stated objectives of the groups they represent tell you these are committed activists, not neutral academicians.

Abigail Aiken, the lead researcher, is an assistant professor of public affairs at University of Texas at Austin. So far, so good. But if that UT Austin name triggered an alarm in your head, you’re quite astute. There’s a very interesting connection there.

Think back to the big argument that took place over laws Texas passed to shift family planning funds away from abortion performing organizations, and later to impose safety measures on Texas abortion clinics. Some of these eventually were struck down in the Supreme Court’s 2016 Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

You may recall that a group from UT Austin called the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) flooded the media with reports about the supposed drastic effects of the law – clinic closures, increased wait times, delayed abortions, attempts at self-abortion, etc. These claims received uncritical attention from the media.

Guess who was one the “affiliated researchers” for the TxPEP project? That’s right, Abigail Aiken. And Aiken is not the only author of the current study to be associated with TxPEP. One co-author, Kathleen Broussard, was a “graduate research associate” for the group.

Six of the nine authors, including Aiken and Broussard, are members of Project SANA (Self-managed Abortion Needs Assessment). SANA is “an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Texas at Austin seeking to examine the who, the what, and the why of self-managed abortion in the United States.”

The stated aims of Project SANA?

By significantly advancing current knowledge of self-managed medication abortion in the U.S., the expected outcomes of the project are to:

  1. Equip clinicians with the tools to reduce the risks that may accompany medication self-management and to improve clinical service delivery
  2. Inform the public conversation around medication self-management
  3. Produce an evidence base that can influence policy conversations about self-managed medication abortion in a positive and constructive way.

If you read that to indicate any intent to warn any woman about the dangers of chemical-induced self-abortion, you’re badly mistaken.

The naming of Rebecca Gomperts as one of the listed authors is most revealing. Gomperts is the former Greenpeace activist who heads Women on Web. WoW is the group that set up the “I need an abortion” website and is connected to international publicity campaigns like the abortion ship, the abortion train, the abortion bus, the abortion drone, and several international abortion hotlines.

Her presence makes clear that this group’s and this study’s existence is specifically for the purpose of promoting self-managed abortion, establishing a “need” or demand for it in the U.S.

Is there a demand for these self-abortions?

Aiken and team claim that “We found considerable demand for self-managed medication abortion using online telemedicine among U.S. residents” This statement requires some serious scrutiny.

Using data from Gomperts’ group, Aiken claimed that WoW had received 6,022 requests for abortion pills during a 10 month period from October 15, 2017 and August 15, 2018. That number needs to be put in context.

WoW’s “I need an abortion” website is designed to allow women to answer a series of demographic (e.g., age, state of residence) and medical (e.g., gestational age, previous pregnancies, disqualifying conditions) questions. If they give acceptable answers, indicate they have read through appropriate instructions and warnings, and agree not to hold WoW liable for any injuries, etc., then a doctor will authorize abortion pills to be sent to the provided address.

WoW states on its website that its services are for women in countries “where access to safe abortion is restricted.’ Though complaints are made by advocates that this increasingly describes large parts of America, WoW’s official position is that it does not currently provide abortions to women living in the United States. [1]

This means that the 6,022 women the study mentions are supposed to be women who requested abortion pills, not necessarily women who received them. If a woman filled out the form and requested these pills more than once, particularly if using a different name or address (there does not appear to be a verification system for the website), it is not clear that the website or the study could tell the difference.

Simply put, the number given may not reflect the actual number of women seeking pills from the WoW website.

Using this to gauge demand also presupposes that all or most of these women would have followed through with this intention. But how many women might have ordered pills and then changed their minds before (or even after) the pills arrived?

How many of the six thousand who made the initial inquiry were seriously intending to abort and not merely curious about the process? This study was not really designed to determine that.

Even if the 6,022 did represent the actual number of women requesting abortion pills in a ten month period, it would not necessarily represent that large a number, relatively speaking. The latest national estimates from the Guttmacher Institute put the number of annual abortions for the U.S. at 862,320 for 2017, down nearly 64,000 a year from the last figure Guttmacher reported for 2014.

While these numbers from WoW might allow one to think that maybe some of this recent national drop could be women attempting to self-abort, the 7,226 abortions (6,022 prorated for 12 months) represent less than 12% of the annual drop and an even more minuscule portion (less than 1%) of the abortions performed in the U.S. each year.

Do some women, after years of publicity and promotion of self-abortion by WoW, TxPEP, Project SANA, and other groups like Women Help Women, Gynuity, and Aid Access, decide to check out online chemical abortion options? Sure. But it isn’t at all clear how many women follow through.

So far, the numbers don’t appear to be that large, certainly not evidence of substantial pent up demand.

In Part Two, topics we’ll discuss will include “Who considers self abortion and why?” “Reasons for online abortion pills not as expected.” “More a marketing report than a study.”

[1] WoW may not ship pills directly, but it does appear to go to great lengths to try to connect up American patients and abortion pills. Aiken and team point out that “Those who contacted the service by filling out the consultation form received information from a specially trained help desk about locally available abortion services and funds, self-management, online pharmacies that sell mifepristone, and financial and logistical assistance accessing abortion in their state of residence.”