Telemedicine and Abortion: India says Yes or No?

COVID-19 has brought all of us to a standstill. It is highly unlikely that we no longer take things for granted after witnessing first hand how interconnected all our lives are. What would otherwise have been a skip, hop and jump to the pharmacy near our house to get, say a basic Paracetamol tablet, has now become desperate speed walks to all the pharmacies within 4 km radius of your house! We witness first hand, what it means when newspapers say supply chains have been affected and medicines are going out of stock. We may want to sigh, we may want to be angry at all those folks who made panic purchases earlier, who have hoarded their medicine cabinets and stayed safe in their houses with glee and satisfaction. In this case, can Telemedicine be an option to look at?

Now, what if you are to find out you are pregnant, or your partner is pregnant? What if you had not planned this pregnancy? What if this pregnancy is creating severe anxieties for you and/or for your partner given how the future looks very uncertain due to impending economic recession and thus makes you feel the pregnancy as unwanted? What if you are to find out you are pregnant while staying with your parents during this lockdown who have no clue that you are sexually active and surely will not receive well your discovery? What if this COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown has severely restricted your access to safe abortion

India is now entering the fourth week of nationwide lockdown with 17 more days to go for the lockdown to end. Even though hospitals and pharmacies are essential services during this crisis, they are plagued with challenges. Many of the hospitals which are functional even during the lockdown, now have a dearth of Personal Protection Equipments (PPE). The staff are in the high-risk group of getting exposed to the virus and those hospitals where staff tested positive are shutting down their services. Pharmacies are facing supply chain hits and shortages of stock. Amidst all these, when you identify as one of those people mentioned in the above para, what are you to do next? 

India has a relatively liberal law on termination of pregnancy and much to the surprise/ ignorance/ confusion of many Indians: abortion is, in fact, legal in India, not as a byproduct of the liberal times, but as a legal right ensured by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971. Also, the recent amendments to the MTP Act 1971 passed in the Lok Sabha in March (just as the country was waking up to COVID-19 crisis), gave many the reasons to celebrate that India is moving towards more progressive abortion laws. However, there was dissonance from many quarters about the amendments being lopsided. Now, as we navigate through this lockdown, it is surprising that the necessity of timely and safe access to abortion has eluded the health sector amidst the pandemic panic and many experts and activist circles have overlooked the urgency for ensuring access to safe abortion during the lockdown. 

The lockdown is giving a tough time for scores of women to have access to safe abortions, especially for those women who do not have the convenience of distance and the privilege of a personal mode of transport. Even if they do reach the hospitals, abortion is still out of reach for them as abortions are elective procedures and most hospitals are now postponing abortions citing the risks of exposure to the virus. Almost all elective procedures including abortions are on halt at hospitals as it is highly likely to have patients who are asymptomatic and thus there can be contamination, posing a risk of infection to the hospital staff as well as the patients. 

While ‘stay home, stay safe’ is indeed the need of the hour to ‘break the chain’, many are pushing for telemedicine to address the health issues of the population such that neither the doctor nor the patient has a risk of getting exposed to the virus.  Recently the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India issued guidelines for telemedicine practice which has solidified the acceptability of this new mode of medical intervention. These guidelines have now made it legalto practise telemedicine in a professional setting. The scope of telemedicine for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), especially for abortion, holds a lot of promise. However, there seems to be no specificity whatsoever about abortions, a much-needed service, in the existing guidelines.  

According to the experts, there is lack of clarity even though the Medical Council of India (MCI) released guidelines specifies what entails telemedicine in India, who can practice telemedicine and how e-prescriptions can be provided to clients. They explained that at present, the Government of India allows only over the counter medicines to be e-prescribed apart from some drugs like chloroquine in endemic areas while Schedule X drugs are strictly prohibited. They opined that they would discourage online prescriptions apart from what is included in list O (Over The Counter) in the telemedicine guidelines and firmly think that in any circumstances, medical abortion pill cannot be prescribed over telemedicine in India, not even during an epidemic.

Dr Ashok Kumar Devoor, Senior Gynaecologist and Advisor to Hidden Pockets Collective said, “Two important prerequisites of abortion are (1) clinical examination (2) confirmation by scanning. Scanning is very important as it helps to ascertain whether the foetus is growing within the uterus or outside the uterus, that is in the fallopian tube. Now, if one were to take medicines to abort the foetus, without knowing that foetus is outside the uterus, it can lead to serious consequences. The fallopian tube can rupture and the woman’s life will be at risk as it is a medical emergency and needs immediate surgical intervention. Hence scanning is a must to know whether the pregnancy is within the uterus.”

Specialists say that the termination of pregnancyup to 9 weeks is usually done through medicines given under medical supervision with follow up at hospitals and clinics. For pregnancy beyond 9 weeks and under 12 weeks, surgical termination of pregnancy is needed. 

Dr Shamala A. Dupte, Director Medical and PD- GCACI, Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) said, “ Access to safe abortions is a fundamental reproductive right. The mobility of staff and also the patients have been restricted during these lockdown times across the country. However, our clinical teams have braved all challenges to ensure that women continue to access these essential, time-sensitive services. We provided safe abortion services including pre and post-abortion counselling and contraception to over 200 women from 1st April to 12th April 2020.”

Countries like the UKhave already made it possible to have medical abortions within the safety of one’s own home during this pandemic. This is a temporary policy change and women need to follow a telephone or e- consultation with a doctor for abortion at home. 

Dr Ashok thinks that safe medical abortion through telemedicine is possible and much needed in India during the lockdown. However, he stressed that provisions need to be made such that if medicines are prescribed through telemedicine, it is done so only after scan results are obtained. Also, he highlighted the importance of having access to hospitals for those cases where there has been incomplete abortion. 

The possible manipulation of telemedicine for sex-selective abortion is real, especially in India where male child preference is high. However, experts said that it is the same as the one that would exist even in a clinical set up: a woman who already knows about the sex of the foetus through scanning can approach another doctor and request for an abortion in a clinical setup. 

Since the lockdown, Hidden Pockets Collective, the only real-time Careline service on sexual and reproductive health service across India, has been inundated with pleas for help from youngsters who fear that they are pregnant. What otherwise would usually be places where Hidden Pockets did not have any presence, places such as Kashmir, Nagaland, small pockets of Bihar – Uttar Pradesh – Telangana, are now emerging strongly towards Hidden Pockets during the lockdown. The SOS messages have moved beyond the metropolitan cities in the country. 

Aisha Lovely George, the Careline Counsellor at Hidden Pockets Collective, is the first point of contact for the clients who are in distress. Aisha said, “More than the fear of contracting the virus, the youth have the fear of finding out that they are pregnant and they are already panicking about safe abortion during this lockdown”. She explained that most people who reach out to Hidden Pockets have no access to pregnancy test kits as they are staying with their parents during the lockdown. When their otherwise regular periods are now unusually delayed, it sets forth a whole chain of doubt and fear that they are pregnant. To worsen their woes, they do not have the approachability to request their parents for a pregnancy test kit nor can they step out to get one on their own. Immense stress, anxiety and fear constantly swing these young people between gloom and doom. 

With the lockdown extended recently, their worries too have grown that if lockdown gets stretched further in the future, they will not be able to hide their pregnancy (if they are pregnant) as the telltale signs of pregnancy will start to show and family will realize what is happening. 

Even if necessary precautions have been taken for safe sex, the youngsters are looping in circles of worry about being pregnant only because their periods are unusually delayed. Given the drastic lifestyle changes that lockdown has brought about where sleep cycle, dietary habits and metabolic rates have all gone for a toss, the menstrual cycle is playing havoc with the youth’s anxiety levels. 

Aisha strongly felt that telemedicine guidelines, in its current form, are not addressing many challenges on the ground when it comes to access to safe abortion. She said, “the existing guidelines on telemedicine poses problems as it does not permit giving medical abortion pills. For doctors, they need scan results for abortion. Most scanning centres are non-functional during the lockdown and if they are functional the question of access during the lockdown remains.” 

With every passing day of the lockdown, the number of youngsters who reach out to Careline services of Hidden Pockets Collective is skyrocketing. As much as she wants to help them, Aisha feels her hands are tied because of the ground realities of lockdown. “Even if the government is not listening to the pleas of organizations like us and make the needed changes to the guidelines that can ensure safe access to abortion, then at least bring in as many senior doctors as possible who have vast experience to just have conversations through telemedicine with these youngsters. The reassurance these senior doctors can give to the patients can bring a lot of relief to them,” she emphatically added.

India is still making the uphill climb towards tech literacy, tech outreach and quality tech services. The dichotomy between India and Bharat are present for these tech matters too. While many continue to use these valid points as downers for supporting and promoting telemedicine, what is being forgotten is the need of the hour we are in. Young women are in distress and virgin birth might not be the best answer they can give their parents when the lockdown ends!

Writer : 

Dr Nishitha Aysha Ashraf is Programme Associate for SAAF Project at Hidden Pockets Collective. She completed her B.A. Journalism & Communication (2010) and Bachelor of Dental Surgery (2015) from Manipal, Karnataka. She has covered the Nipah outbreak in Kerala during her stint as Health Reporter with The News Minute (2018). The reportage furthered her interest to be a key player in public health/ community health. Her internship and work at SOCHARA – Society for Community Health Awareness, Research and Action (2019) was instrumental to learn more about the People’s Health Movement.  She is keen on exploring the SRHR issues of Kerala, especially those amongst the Muslim and Christian communities.

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