Technologies like robotics and online teleconferences are letting medical practitioners remotely use "telemedicine" to practice surgery, consult with patients, treat battlefield wounds, and complete other health care tasks when they can't perform them in person. But one use of telemedicine has stirred up considerable controversy: abortion. It works like this: After a trained technician performs an ultrasound on a woman, she participates in a private teleconference with a doctor. If the doctor decides she's a good candidate for a medical abortion induced with drugs (as opposed to a surgical abortion), the doctor remotely unlocks a drawer containing mifepristone and misoprostol, the two drugs needed to abort her pregnancy. Is this a safe and ethical way to perform abortions?
Yes. Many women don't have access to abortion providers. A recent study, published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, confirms the safety and effectiveness of medical abortions performed without a doctor present. Over 90 percent of the women in the study were "very satisfied" with the procedure. "The clinical outcomes with medical abortion provided through telemedicine are the same as when the procedure is provided with a face-to-face visit with a physician," said Dr. Daniel Grossman, as quoted by Reuters. And because "most U.S. women do not live near a clinic that offers medical abortions, telemedicine is considered one way to boost women's access to them."
"Abortion pill via telemedicine seen safe, effective"
No. The practice is unethical and potentially dangerous: "It's like the McDonald's drive-through window of abortion service," says Operation Rescue President Troy Newman at ABC News. Five states — Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Tennessee — have laws limiting or outlawing the procedure. If complications do occur, no doctor will be available to help. Women who live 100 miles away from the doctor in question can have cramping and bleeding that force them to go to the emergency room.
"Abortion without doctor on-site gets high grades in Iowa"
The real argument isn't about telemedicine, it's about abortion: "No one has ever said a negative word about the merits of telemedicine until Planned Parenthood used the technology to remotely open a drawer that contained abortion drugs," says Dr. Arthur Caplan at MSNBC. The same "robo" medicine that anti-abortion activists rail against has saved countless lives in hospitals and on the battlefield. But people who think abortions "are immoral seem willing to go to any length to restrict, discourage or hinder them — even, in some cases, if it means risking a woman's health or violating core values of health care."
"Attack on 'telemedicine' is really about squashing women's rights"
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How a degree from Duke University dashed my dreams of buying a home
- Half the world's population lives in these 6 countries
- This is why you can't trust the NSA. Ever.
- 10 things you need to know today: August 23, 2014
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Innocent before proven guilty? The bizarre bipartisan rush to clear Rick Perry
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- ISIS and the echoes of the West's religious terror
- What Keeping Up with the Kardashians can teach America about interracial marriage
- Inside America's crumbling infrastructure
Subscribe to the Week