Google searches for "abortion pills" spiked after a Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision that gives women the right to legally seek an abortion, was leaked this week.
The first abortion pill, Mifeprex, was approved by the FDA in 2000 to end pregnancy up to 70 days gestation.
"Medication abortion is extremely safe and it’s extremely common," said Dr. Erica Hinz, an OBGYN at University of Illinois Health. "It is a combination of two pills. One you swallow in office or at home and a set you can take at home."
Because of the newly released draft, Hinz said she's already preparing for an influx of patients seeking abortion care, especially those crossing state lines.
"We have already started to see an increase of patients coming from places like Texas where abortion bans are already in effect," she said.
UI Health offers medication abortion both in-person and via telehealth. In December 2021, the Food and Drug Administration removed restrictions requiring in-person doctor visits to dispense the medication, meaning the pills can be prescribed digitally and sent through the mail.
In April, Planned Parenthood Illinois also launched telehealth services to meet a growing demand.
"The patient has to be physically sitting in the state of Illinois at the time of their telehealth appointment, and the address that the shipment is sent to has to be within the state of Illinois as well. [But] the person doesn’t have to be a resident of the state of Illinois," said Julie Uhal, the program manager for SAFE or "securing access for everyone."
Uhal said in March of this year, PPIL saw its highest number of out-of-state abortion patients ever.
"We have been putting plans into place for years in order to prepare for this moment and increase our capacity to meet the need of our patients," she said.
That includes opening new facilities, strategically located near Illinois' borders with Wisconsin in Waukegan, and with Indiana in Flossmoor.
"The laws of the state a person lives in don’t follow them when they come into the state of Illinois," said Uhal.
Illinois has strong pro-reproductive rights laws, largely due to the Reproductive Health Act that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law in 2019. In recent years, Illinois has seen an influx of patients traveling to the state to seek reproductive care.
"We do recognize that the protected access we have in Illinois thanks to the Reproductive Health Act is fragile. It only takes one anti-choice state government in order to tear down all of that progress and turn us into a state that restricts abortion," said Uhal.
Thirty two states still require in-person visits to receive medication abortion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Six states, including Missouri, ban the use of telemedicine for medication abortion altogether.
Since the FDA approved medication abortion, its use has grown significantly. More than half of US abortions are now done with pills, instead of surgery, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research institute that supports abortion rights.
However, the same report shows, so far in 2022, 16 state legislatures have proposed bans or restrictions on the pills.
The pills do have side effects like bleeding and cramping and there are some people who should not take the medication, including anyone with an IUD or who is having an ectopic pregnancy.
"The main take home point is that [the pill] has been around for a very long time. It has been extensively studied and shown to have been very safe and effective," said Hinz.
"It is an FDA regiment and that regiment can include people taking it at home safely through telemedicine. If you have any questions, please contact your healthcare provider," she said.
Medication abortion is different than emergency contraceptives like "Plan B."
"Emergency contraception is a medication you take within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse that prevents a pregnancy," said Uhal.
"Medication abortion is a different method. It’s a series of pills you take within 11 weeks of gestation that will terminate an existing pregnancy," she said. "Both are available at different points of pregnancy."