Unrestricted Prescribing of Mifepristone Is Safe, Study Shows

Abortion rates remained stable and adverse events were rare after removal of mifepristone prescribing restrictions in Canada, a new study shows.

“Our study is a signal to other countries that restrictions are not necessary to ensure patient safety,” senior author Wendy V. Norman, MD, professor in the department of family practice at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, said in a press release.

“This is the strongest evidence yet that it is safe to provide the abortion pill like most other prescriptions – meaning any doctor or nurse practitioner can prescribe, any pharmacist can dispense, and patients can take the pills if, when, and where they choose,” said lead author Laura Schummers, ScD, a postdoctoral fellow in the same department.

The findings “add to the accumulating evidence that removing restrictions from medication abortion is safe, effective, and improves access,” agreed Eve Espey, MD, professor and chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, who was not part of the research team. “This is additional confirmation that it is safe for patients to receive abortion care medications in the ‘normal’ fashion, through a prescription available at a pharmacy,” she said in an interview.

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, compared medical abortion use, safety, and effectiveness in the province of Ontario before the Canadian availability of mifepristone and after it became available without restrictions that are similar to the Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) restrictions in place for mifepristone in the United States.

Using linked administrative health data, the researchers created a population-based cohort of all Ontario residents aged 12-49 years who had received abortion services during the study period. In total, 195,183 abortions were performed in the period before mifepristone was approved (January 2012–December 2016), and 84,032 were performed after it was made available without restrictions (Nov. 7, 2017, through March 15, 2020). The vast majority of these abortions (89.3%) were surgical, with about 10% being medically induced, the authors reported.

The study found that, while the overall abortion rate declined over the study period (from 11.9 to 11.3 per 1,000 female residents), the proportion of medical abortions jumped sharply from 2.2% to 31.4%, and the rate of second-trimester abortions declined from 5.5% of all abortions to 5.1%.

Abortion safety outcomes within 6 weeks of abortion remained stable over the two study periods. This included severe adverse events (0.03% vs. 0.04%) such as blood transfusions, abdominal surgery, admission to an ICU, or sepsis during an abortion-related hospitalization; and complications (0.74% vs. 0.69%,) such as genital tract or pelvic infection, hemorrhage, embolism, shock, renal failure, damage to pelvic organs or tissues, and venous complications among other things.

There were slight declines in overall abortion effectiveness, but ongoing pregnancy rates “remained infrequent,” the authors noted. While there was a modest rise in the rates of subsequent uterine evacuation (from 1.0% to 2.2%), and ongoing intrauterine pregnancy continuing until delivery (from 0.03% to 0.08%), the rate of ectopic pregnancy diagnosed within 6 weeks after the abortion date remained stable (from 0.15% to 0.22%).

Canada was the first country in the world to remove all supplemental restrictions on the dispensing and administration of mifepristone, according to the press release. And while professional organizations have called for the removal of such restrictions “because they impede access to abortion services without improving safety,” high-quality data on this are lacking, they added.

The study’s finding are consistent with existing U.S. and U.K. data showing Food and Drug Administration REMS restrictions requiring abortion care medications to be dispensed in a clinic by a certified provider “are unnecessary and create obstacles to early abortion access,” said Espey. “For clinicians and patients in the U.S., it’s important to note that the increasing number of legislative restrictions on abortion, including medication abortion, are non–evidence based. Politically motivated false claims of safety concerns are countered by this study and others conducted during the pandemic when both the U.S. and U.K. removed REMS-type restrictions. These studies show that receiving abortion care through usual pharmacy channels and through telemedicine is safe, effective, and reduces barriers to care.”

Norman reported receiving grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, providing expert witness services to the government of Ontario and Office of the Attorney General, and serving on the board of directors of the Society of Family Planning. No other researchers reported conflicts of interest. Espey reported no conflicts of interest. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Women’s Health Research Institute with the support of ICES (formerly known as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences).

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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