People turning to Google to find and order abortion pills misoprostol or mifepristone skyrocketed after decision was leaked online.
LA JOLLA, Calif. — The overturning of Roe v. Wade has sent the demand for abortion pills to record highs, a new study reveals. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 24th ruling, researchers have discovered that the sheer speculation that abortion could become illegal in certain states sent online searches for abortion pills skyrocketing.
Dr. John W. Ayers from the Qualcomm Institute within the University of California San Diego and Dr. Adam Poliak from Bryn Mawr College analyzed internet search data following the stunning May 2nd leak from the Supreme Court. The report included a draft opinion indicating that the nation’s highest court was preparing to overturn the 1973 ruling, giving women a constitutional right to an abortion under the 14th Amendment.
The leaked opinion set off days of protests nationwide, weeks before Roe v. Wade was even officially overturned.
With that in mind, the team focused in on Google searches for “abortion pill” or specific medications such as mifepristone/mifeprex or misoprostol/cytotec within the United States between 2004 and May 8, 2022 — a week after the leaked opinion.
These searches also included questions and phrases like “how to get misoprostol,” “order abortion pills,” or “buy mifepristone.”
“Discussing abortion openly is not something many are eager to do,” says study co-author Dr. Eric Leas, an assistant professor in the UC San Diego Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science, in a media release. “But searching online is anonymous. By examining aggregate internet searches, decision makers can understand the needs of the public based on the content and timing of their queries.”
Searches more than doubled after the report
Researchers discovered that these internet searches for abortion medications set national records in the hours and days after the May 2nd report. Specifically, abortion searches skyrocketed in states with more restrictive reproductive rights.
In the hour following the leaked SCOTUS draft, abortion medication searches spiked. Over the next three days, those searches were still 162 percent higher than normal, according to the Google data. Overall, abortion medication searches following the leaked report have never been higher, according to records dating back to January of 2004.
Study authors estimate that there were 350,000 searches related for abortion medications in the United States alone in the week following the leaked SCOTUS report.
The team also found that states receiving failing grades (F) from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s “Reproductive Rights Index” had 163 percent more searches in comparison to states with an A grade. The institute hands out their grades based on a state resident’s access to abortions, public funding for abortions, and the percentage of women living in counties with an abortion services clinician.
“In states with restrictive reproductive rights and where abortion will likely become criminalized, women appear more likely to search for abortion medications in the wake of the SCOTUS leak,” says Dr. Poliak. “Although abortion medications require a prescription, women may be attempting to stockpile medication or hazardous black-market options in anticipation of curtailed access.”
Will this have dangerous implications for women’s health?
“Elevated interest in abortion medications should alert physicians that many of their patients may ultimately pursue abortions with or without them,” says co-author Dr. Davey Smith, a physician-scientist and Chief of the UC San Diego Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health.
“Failure to meet the needs of online searchers may result in more unsafe abortion attempts,” adds co-author Dr. Steffanie Strathdee, Distinguished Professor in the UC San Diego Division of Infectious Disease and Global Public Health. “Already 7 percent of women of reproductive age have attempted a self-managed abortion in their lifetimes and that figure could be on the rise following the SCOTUS decision.”
“Accessible information about abortion medications should be prioritized online; including encouraging evidence-based telehealth for those seeking abortion medications,” study co-author and UC San Diego doctoral student Nora Satybaldiyeva notes. “Providing abortion medications via telehealth under the care of a physician is a safe alternative to in-person care, especially for women in states where abortion will be illegal.”
What happens next after overturning Roe?
Previous studies following the May leak estimated that up to 26 states may decide to illegalize abortion.
“Women in states where abortion is illegal or extremely difficult to access may be forced online to access remote services for abortion, such as abortion medications,” Satybaldiyeva adds.
“As abortion policies change and new laws are enacted, research tracking the needs of the public in near real time must be prioritized to inform responsive public health strategies,” Dr. Ayers concludes. “Investments in public health surveillance systems tracking abortion-related needs could become integral to supporting women’s rights.”
The findings are published in JAMA Internal Medicine.