Reconceptualizing safe abortion and abortion services in the age of abortion pills: A discussion paper

Berer, M

Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology
Aug 2019

At the conference “Developing an Advocacy Agenda for Abortion in the 21st Century and Making Change Happen” held on 5–7 September 2018, Lisbon, Portugal, organized by the International Campaign for Women's Right to Safe Abortion, it was argued that abortion services not only need to be treated as a bona fide form of health care but also completely reconceptualized, particularly because of the influence of medical abortion pills. It emerged, however, that there is no consensus on how this reconceptualization should be configured. Indeed, substantial differences arose, or so it appeared, complicated not only by different exigencies in national settings but also reflecting differing perspectives, specifically, those held primarily by health professionals compared to those held by advocates who felt they spoke for women needing abortions. In the course of these discussions, questions emerged on how much women should be able to do on their own, whether and why services were necessary in every case, where services should be located, what they should offer, who should provide them, and who should be in charge of the process.

The biggest discussion was over the extent to which women can safely self-manage use of medical abortion pills for abortion in both the first and second trimester, and to what extent health professional control should be relinquished. Regardless of these arguments, however, since 1988 with the discovery in Brazil that misoprostol is an abortifacient, over-the-counter access to medical abortion (MA) pills began to put self-management of abortion on the map. Today, self-management is happening in almost every country, and we have no idea how many abortions are taking place anymore. Moreover, because of the work of safe abortion information hotlines, there is a growing body of evidence that self-management of abortion by women is safe – or at least far less unsafe than what prevailed in the past.

Looking beyond the abortion rights movement, the crux of the issue is whether the state should continue to control abortion, with power over individual decisions delegated to the medical profession – or whether, as has been happening at a snail's pace for the last half century, and as with contraception and emergency contraception too – control can and should be more and more in women's hands.

This paper examines these perspectives and attempts to describe what a consensus might look like. It concludes that convincing governments and conservative health professionals to accept a large dose of self-management will not be easy.