STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The move to telemedicine during the pandemic includes abortion. In many states, abortion pills can be prescribed remotely. Abortion providers report a growing number of women seeking medication that way, but many find obstacles, as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Even before the coronavirus crisis, there were lots of abortion restrictions in South Dakota. But now it's just not available.
HEATHER: I called to make the appointment, and they said Sioux Falls location was closed because of the coronavirus.
MCCAMMON: The state's only clinic providing abortions in Sioux Falls is still open for other health services, but not abortion. Heather is 34 and lives in Sioux Falls. We're not using her last name because she doesn't want people in her largely conservative community to know about her abortion. Heather has two small children, one who's being treated for a rare form of cancer, and she says she and her partner felt they couldn't handle another pregnancy now.
HEATHER: It's like somebody can only take so much, I guess.
MCCAMMON: Between layers of restrictions and a lot of social stigma, Planned Parenthood has been unable to find a local doctor to provide abortion in South Dakota. So for 25 years, physicians have been flying in and out several times a month - until now. Sarah Stoesz is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood North Central States.
SARAH STOESZ: It's been very difficult for women to access abortions since COVID-19 because, of course, we can't fly doctors to South Dakota anymore.
MCCAMMON: Stoesz oversees clinics in several Midwestern states. Her region has seen a 250% increase in the use of telehealth for all types of care since social distancing restrictions took effect. But states can't offer abortions through telemedicine to patients in South Dakota either.
STOESZ: That means that there is no abortion access in South Dakota right now.
MCCAMMON: According to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, 18 states prohibit doctors from prescribing abortion pills remotely. In places where it is legal, doctors say they're hearing from more patients seeking abortions this way. Meera Shah is chief medical officer at Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic outside New York City.
MEERA SHAH: I had a patient the other day who is an emergency responder who was sitting in her ambulance and accessed abortion care via telemedicine and then drove her ambulance to our health center to pick up the meds. And she was so grateful that she was able to do that and only take, you know, max 15 minutes away from her work.
MCCAMMON: Under federal law, even in states where telemedicine abortion is legal, the abortion drug mifepristone has to be picked up at a hospital or clinic. Reproductive rights advocates have sued the Trump administration, arguing those pills should be available by mail during the pandemic. But Dr. Christina Francis with the anti-abortion group the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists supports strict controls on abortion pills.
CHRISTINA FRANCIS: Part of having a woman see a physician is that they can document gestational age. I will tell you as a woman and as a physician who sees women that I love women. I think we are intelligent. But we are notoriously bad about knowing our last period and being able to date pregnancies that way.
MCCAMMON: For Heather, South Dakota's restrictions meant driving to a clinic nearly three hours away in Nebraska for an abortion. She and her partner packed cleaning supplies and loaded up the kids even though she knew it was risky during a pandemic.
HEATHER: I just didn't want them touching anything. Basically put them in a bubble. And let me Lysol and scrub everything with Clorox, and then I'll let you, you know, out of your bubble.
MCCAMMON: Heather isn't alone. Officials at Planned Parenthood say more than 60 patients from South Dakota have traveled to clinics outside the state for abortions since the pandemic began.
Sarah McCammon, NPR News.
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