Bay Area-based telemedicine companies that provide reproductive health services are experiencing a spike in demand for contraception since the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion last Friday.
In its 5-4 ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, the court said its reasoning only applied to abortion. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas signaled that other constitutional rights, including the right to contraception, may be legally vulnerable. The potential threat has led to reports of women stockpiling emergency contraception pills . In response, pharmacies, such as Amazon and Rite Aid, have placed caps on the number of packs that customers can buy at one time.
Favor, a San Mateo-based telemedicine company that provides birth control pills, vaginal rings and emergency contraception to an estimated 240,000 users across the country, saw emergency contraception purchases soar more than 5,000% last Friday, said Stephanie Swartz, senior director of policy and public affairs. Demand for emergency contraception remains higher than usual, she added, as are requests for birth control pills.
“Friday’s ruling is already causing a seismic shift in the reproductive health-care landscape across a number of factors,” Swartz told The Chronicle. “While this ruling itself was shocking to us, it wasn’t a surprise,” she added, noting that the company has been preparing for this since late last year.
Nurx, another telemedicine company based in San Francisco, also saw “a big surge in demand for emergency contraception,” said Kelly Gardiner, a company spokesperson, in an email. Demand for prescription-only Ella, a type of emergency contraception, was 10 times higher than usual last Friday.
“Since then demand has leveled out a bit but remains a lot higher than normal,” Gardiner wrote.
Birth control requests are also reportedly two to three times higher than usual. And since Friday, Nurx has seen a 20% rise in birth control patients who have added emergency contraception to their orders, she added.
On Monday, Nurx tweeted that users may experience delays as a result of the sudden increase in requests.
In recent years, telemedicine companies have played an increasingly important role in extending access to a variety of contraceptive methods to people across the country. Favor and Nurx were founded in 2016 and 2015, respectively. These companies, along with others, service hundreds of thousands of women across the U.S.
A 2019 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that telemedicine is more convenient and accessible than in-person clinics, and reduces barriers to accessing contraception.
Telemedicine services may also benefit low-income and marginalized communities facing barriers to care, such as high costs or discrimination, according to the research group Brookings . These services are especially important for those in contraception deserts, or counties without access to comprehensive reproductive health-care, including vast parts of California .
“Unfortunately, long before the devastating Roe decision, we’ve really had a separate and unequal health-care system when it comes to sexual and reproductive health across the country,” said Amy Moy, the chief external affairs officer of the California nonprofit Essential Access Health.
While birth control and emergency contraception remain legal in all 50 states, not everyone has easy or equitable access. Moy noted that factors such as where someone lives or whether or not they have health insurance coverage can impact people’s access to contraception.
Last summer, a policy paper in the Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal said California, which was the first state to regulate telemedicine services back in 1996 , could continue to be a national leader on reproductive rights by using the evolving technology to expand access to medical abortions, including for minors.
Earlier this year, Assembly Member Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, proposed a bill to pilot reproductive health clinics in five underserved counties, with telemedicine services listed as a way to increase equitable access to non-English speakers. While AB 2320 passed the Assembly, it is currently stuck in the Senate.
Megan Kavanaugh, a principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institue , a research and policy organization, said that the court’s decision may lead to an influx of abortion seekers traveling to states where the procedure remains legal, such as California . She said the combination of incoming and existing patients could impact the ability of brick-and-mortar clinics to provide timely services, including contraceptive care.
“I think that’s where telehealth will potentially fill a gap,” Kavanaugh said.
Kavanaugh also stressed that contraceptive access is not a substitute for abortion services and that she sees barriers to accessing contraception and abortion as two sides of the same coin.
“They are all efforts to restrict people’s reproductive autonomy and freedom,” she said.
Chasity Hale is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter @chas_hale