For Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), a former Planned Parenthood executive and strong proponent of women’s reproductive rights, it’s infuriating enough that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade.
So last week, during a committee hearing on a bill about Food and Drug Administration user fees, when Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) casually tried to amend the bill to require women to see a doctor and get an ultrasound before being allowed to use the abortion pill, Smith was livid.
“Completely unnecessary,” she told him in Tuesday’s hearing.
“This amendment would force women who are seeking a medication abortion to be diagnosed in person and only after this unnecessary procedure,” she said. “To be clear, these kinds of [transvaginal] ultrasounds do not have a medical purpose within 10 weeks of pregnancy, which is the time frame for when women are able to access a medication abortion.”
Smith tweeted about it after the hearing, too, saying there is “zero” reason for Marshall’s proposal and accusing him of “punishing women for seeking a common medical procedure.”
That could have been the end of it. After all, Smith was right: Medication abortion, also called the abortion pill, was approved by the FDA in 2000 and is safe, effective and widely prescribed for miscarriage and abortion care within the first 10 weeks. It’s also the most common method of abortion in the country, accounting for about 60% of all abortions.
As of December, women don’t even have to go to a doctor’s office to get the two-pill regimen. The FDA waived that rule to let doctors prescribe it through telehealth consultations and mail it to patients in states where it’s permitted by law. That was just before a March study found that medication abortion can be dispensed without an ultrasound or a physical exam, a study with far-reaching implications given that ultrasound machines cost thousands of dollars and require specialized training.
But Marshall, who likes to tout that he’s the Senate’s only OB-GYN, tweeted back at Smith — this time making an outlandish claim about the dangers of the abortion pill.
“Women will die if they skip this step,” Marshall said, referring to an ultrasound, “and babies will be born with birth defects as the drug is less effective at a later gestational age.”
Dying women! Babies with birth defects! This is outrageous!
It’s also not true.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the premier professional organization for OB-GYNs, responded to HuffPost’s request for comment almost immediately when asked about Marshall’s claims.
“ACOG does not support this statement,” said Kate Connors, a spokeswoman for the organization. “Medication abortion is safe and effective, and evidence shows it can be provided safety and effectively through telehealth, let alone without an ultrasound.”
Connors also pointed HuffPost to ACOG’s official guidance on medication abortion, which, for anyone interested in a medical explanation of what’s going on, she said “discusses what he is incorrectly extrapolating: misoprostol may be teratogenic in the first trimester. However, the data show that dating a pregnancy by last menstrual period is sufficient for identifying a patient who is indicated for medication abortion, so ultrasound dating is NOT necessary.”
Smith, meanwhile, ripped her Republican colleague for “pushing disinformation” about the safety of medication abortion, which is safer than Tylenol.
“Sen. Marshall is an OB-GYN. He knows what the standard is,” she told HuffPost in a recent interview, accusing him of “hiding behind his doctor’s degree” to try to scare women away from getting a safe abortion.
The Minnesota Democrat said it’s important to note the context of Marshall’s claims.
“He’s doing this as we are probably days away from the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and many will be turning to medication abortion as a way of accessing abortion,” Smith said. “He’s trying to make that difficult, too … as we think about the future of abortion care where Roe v. Wade is overturned.”
Asked for comment in response to ACOG and Smith saying his claims about abortion medication are wildly untrue, a Marshall spokesman provided a lengthy statement about the senator being a proud OB-GYN.
“I will always be an OBGYN first,” Marshall said in his emailed statement. “When I see political agendas that will harm patients it’s my obligation to speak up.”
The Kansas senator went on to claim that women taking an abortion pill without first getting an ultrasound “will lead to missed ectopic pregnancies and woman [sic] dying.” He also claimed that without getting ultrasounds first, women will get the pills beyond the approved 70-day window, which he said could cause “significant birth defects, as well as lead to delay in prenatal care and higher rates of undiagnosed diabetes, blood clots, and preeclampsia.”
“As an OBGYN for 30 years, I delivered more than 5,000 babies but I also treated hemorrhaging patients in the ER that resulted from failed terminations,” Marshall said, before touting his medical credentials again. “As one of only four physicians in the U.S Senate and the only OBGYN, it is in the best interest for the safety and wellbeing of women and unborn children to require medical imaging prior to prescribing chemical abortion pills.”
Once again, ACOG strongly rejected Marshall’s claims.
The fact that Marshall uses the term “chemical abortion” at all is hugely inappropriate, said Connors, as ACOG has explicitly called that out as “biased, non-clinical language.”
“If anything will cost the lives of pregnant people, it will be the gross and deliberate misinterpretation of scientific data to restrict access to abortion based on politics and ideology.”
– Dr. Jen Villavicencio of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Beyond that, Dr. Jen Villavicencio, ACOG’s leader of equity transformation and an OB-GYN with a specialty in complex family planning, said Marshall’s claims are downright dangerous for women.
“If anything will cost the lives of pregnant people, it will be the gross and deliberate misinterpretation of scientific data to restrict access to abortion based on politics and ideology,” Villavicencio told HuffPost in a statement.
“As a doctor who is currently delivering babies, operating on people with life-threatening ectopics, and providing abortion care, I can say both policies and the practice of medicine should reflect sound science and clear evidence,” she said. “Abortion restrictions are clearly not supported by data. Medication abortion is a very safe, effective medical intervention and for many people, requiring ultrasounds only serve as a barrier to care.”
The Supreme Court will conclude its term during the last week of June or the first week of July. It is widely expected to overturn Roe v. Wade by then.