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Spike in Google searches for abortion pills may lead to rise in unsafe abortions: Study

(NEW YORK) — A spike in internet searches for abortion pills may indicate women in the United States will try to obtain the medication without a doctor’s oversight, a new study finds.

Researchers from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and the University of California, San Diego examined online searches following a leaked draft opinion on May 2 from the Supreme Court indicating Roe v. Wade would be overturned. The court eventually did so on June 24.

The team analyzed Google search trends that mentioned “abortion pill” or “abortion medications” from Jan. 1, 2004 — when the search engine first began collecting data — through May 8, 2022.

Results showed the week following the leaked draft opinion corresponded with a record-high number of searches on Google in the U.S. with 350,000 searches from May 1 to May 8.

When the team looked at the data based on hourly trends, they found that in the 72 hours following the leaked opinion, there was a 162% increase in online searches relating to abortion medications.

At-home medication abortions involve someone taking two pills to end a pregnancy and are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use up to 10 weeks after conception.

The first pill is mifepristone, which was authorized by the FDA in 2000. It works by blocking the hormone progesterone, which the body needs to continue a pregnancy.

This causes the uterine lining to stop thickening and break down, detaching the embryo. The second drug, misoprostol, taken 24 to 48 hours later, causes the uterus to contract and dilates the cervix, which will expel the embryo.

Lawmakers in at least 12 states have introduced bans or restrictions on medication abortion in 2022, including barring the mailing of pills and preventing them from being accessed via telehealth, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that focuses on sexual and reproductive health, and further reporting.

Results also showed states with more restrictions on abortion had higher search volumes than states with fewer restrictions.

Nebraska had the highest search volume, followed by Iowa and Missouri, respectively.

The team said its study is limited because it cannot confirm any searches for these medications were linked to abortion attempts.

But residents of these restrictive states trying to obtain abortion medications that traditionally require a prescription is an alarming trend as it suggests that they will attempt unsafe abortions with potentially unregulated, counterfeit pills and without physician oversight.

“Elevated interest in abortion medications should alert physicians that many of their patients may pursue this option with or without them,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Erica Jalal contributed to this report.

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