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Why an ulcer drug may be a last resort for some abortion patients

A Texas federal judge could rule as early today on whether to terminate access to a key protocol on medical abortion, giving attorneys until the end of the day to present further arguments. Fearing another blow to abortion access, some providers are already evaluating alternatives.

At the Trust Women clinic in Wichita, Kansas, she has already been in crisis mode for months. And now clinic director Ashley Brink says staff are bracing for another, possibly even bigger, wave of uncertainty.

“We are in an unprecedented time,” says Brink. “We’ve never faced this kind of crisis, so there are a lot of unknowns.”

First, they received patients from Texas after that state’s abortion ban went into effect in 2021. Then, patients came from across the region after last summer’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision . And now, they’re facing the possibility of a national ruling blocking access to a common abortion pill.

An (another) unprecedented moment

In states where abortion is still legal, providers know they may soon lose the ability to prescribe the abortion drug mifepristone. A coalition of anti-abortion rights groups, claiming the drug was improperly approved, is asking President Trump’s appointed federal judge to revoke that approval.

Under the current two-drug protocol, the patient first takes mifepristone, which works by blocking progesterone, a hormone that helps the pregnancy progress. The second drug, misoprostol, then causes the contractions to cause what is essentially a doctor-induced miscarriage.

If the judge reverses approval of that protocol, Brink says the Wichita clinic will be able to offer patients only a surgical abortion or misoprostol alone. For now, that means preparing staff with extra training on how to communicate to patients the impact of the new protocol if they’re forced to make the change.

“Because this is a different procedure than using the two-drug regimen with mifepristone,” says Brink, “we need to make sure everyone has the right language and the right information to ensure they’re communicating it effectively.”

Defects and unknowns

A recent Guttmacher Institute study found that 98 percent of medical abortions in the United States used the two-drug protocol in 2020.

But internationally, the second drug, misoprostol, has been used on its own for decades, says Dr. Jamila Perritt, president and CEO of Physicians for Reproductive Health. Perritt says the case could leave both healthcare professionals and patients faced with complex medical and legal decisions about how to move forward without mifepristone.

“At this point, there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of how this is it’s going to go down,” Perritt says. “What we do know is that misoprostol has been used on its own for decades around the world and is effective in ending an early pregnancy.”

The World Health Organization states that misoprostol can be used effectively on its own, often with additional doses.

There are downsides, however, including a higher risk of side effects like nausea and cramping, says Dr.

“It’s so important for patients to understand how long they’re going to bleed after taking miso on its own,” she says. “And it’s longer.”

A learning curve

Most of the available research also suggests that using misoprostol alone is somewhat less effective than when it is combined with mifepristone.

Upadhyay says removing mifepristone from the equation will lead to difficult decisions for doctors and patients, particularly those traveling from states where abortion is illegal: “I think it will be a huge learning curve for doctors to figure out what the best and right protocol for this patient? How should I advise this specific patient based on his legal risks and based on the distance he has traveled to get here?”

But for patients who don’t want to have surgery, misoprostol alone may become the option of choice.

An uncertain legal landscape

Opponents of abortion rights are quick to point out that misoprostol is currently approved for use as an ulcer drug, not as a standalone drug to induce abortion.

“Misoprostol alone would not be an FDA-approved use of that chemical abortion drug,” says Julie Blake, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents anti-abortion groups in the lawsuit challenging mifepristone’s approval. “The off-label use of drugs approved for other purposes certainly comes with additional dangers and safety risks.”

But off-label doesn’t necessarily mean illegal.

The current lawsuit does not directly address off-label uses. Perritt of Physicians for Reproductive Health says misoprostol is already widely – and safely – used off-label for the management of miscarriage, in procedures such as IUD insertion and for abortion. But she is concerned about an increasingly murky legal landscape surrounding abortion pills.

“If they’re coming for the mifepristone, trust me, they’re coming for the misoprostol. It’s not going to end with the one drug,” Perritt says. “And so all of this is at risk.”

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