Abortion Limits: Less Evidence-Based Care for Miscarriages

BALTIMORE – Training hospitals that have state or institutional abortion restrictions are less likely to follow the evidence-based standard of care in diagnosing and managing miscarriages, including taking patient preferences into account, according to a cross-sectional study presented at the annual clinical and scientific meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and published in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

The results revealed that “abortion restrictions have far-reaching effects on early pregnancy loss care and on resident education,” the researchers concluded.

“Abortion restrictions don’t just affect people seeking abortions; they affect people also suffering from early pregnancy loss,” Aurora Phillips, MD, an ob.gyn. resident at Albany (N.Y.) Medical Center, said in an interview. “It’s harder to make that diagnosis and to be able to offer interventions, and these institutions that had restrictions also were less likely to have mifepristone or office based human aspiration, which are the most efficient and cost-effective interventions that we have.”

For example, less than half the programs surveyed offered mifepristone to help manage a miscarriage, “with availability varying inversely with abortion restrictions,” they found. After considering all characteristics of residency programs, “institutional abortion restrictions and bans were more important than state policies or religious affiliation in determining whether evidence-based early pregnancy loss treatments were available,” the researchers found, though their findings predated the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. “Training institutions with a commitment to evidence-based family planning care and education are able to ensure access to the most evidence-based, cost-effective, and timely treatments for pregnancy loss even in the face of state abortion restrictions, thereby preserving patient safety, physician competency, and health care system sustainability,” they wrote.

Reduced access leads to higher risk interventions

An estimated 10%-20% of pregnancies result in early miscarriage, totaling more than one million cases in the U.S. each year. But since treatments for miscarriage often overlap with those for abortion, the researchers wondered whether differences existed in how providers managed miscarriages in states or institutions with strict abortion restrictions versus management in hospitals without restrictions.

They also looked at how closely the management strategies adhered to ACOG’s recommendations, which advise that providers consider both ultrasound imaging and other factors, including clinical reasoning and patient preferences, before diagnosing early pregnancy loss and considering possible interventions.

For imaging guidelines, ACOG endorses the criteria established for ultrasound diagnosis of first trimester pregnancy loss from the Society of Radiologists in 2012. But, the authors note, these guidelines are very conservative, exceeding previous measurements that had a 99%-100% predictive value for pregnancy loss, in the interest of “[prioritizing preservation of] fetal potential over facilitating expeditious care.” Hence the reason ACOG advises providers to include clinical judgment and patient preferences in their approach to care.

“In places where abortion is heavily regulated, clinicians managing miscarriages may cautiously rely on the strictest criteria to differentiate early pregnancy loss from potentially viable pregnancy and may not offer certain treatments commonly associated with abortion,” the authors noted. ACOG recommends surgical aspiration and medical treatment with both mifepristone and misoprostol as the safest and most effective options in managing miscarriages.

“Treating early pregnancy loss without the use of mifepristone is more likely to fail, is more likely to require an unscheduled procedure, and people who choose medication management for their miscarriages are usually trying to avoid a procedure, so that is the downside of not using mifepristone,” coauthor Rachel M. Flink-Bochacki, MD, an associate professor at Albany (N.Y.) Medical Center, said in an interview.

“Office-based uterine aspiration has the same safety profile as uterine aspiration in the operating room minus the risks of anesthesia and also helps patients get in faster because they don’t need to wait for OR time,” Dr. Flink-Bochacki explained. “So again, for a patient who wants an aspiration and does not want to pass the pregnancy at home, not having access to office-based aspiration could lead them to miscarry at home, which has higher risks and is not what they wanted.”

Reduced access to miscarriage care options in “hostile” states

Among all 296 U.S. ob.gyn. residency programs that were contacted between November 2021 and January 2022, half (50.3%) responded to the researchers’ survey about their institutional practices around miscarriage, including location of diagnosis, use of ultrasound diagnostic guidelines, treatment options offered by their institution, and institutional restrictions on abortions based on indication.

The survey also collected characteristics of each program, including its state, setting, religious affiliation, and affiliation with the Ryan Training Program in Abortion and Family Planning. The responding sample had similar geographic distribution and state abortion policies as those who did not respond, but the responding programs were slightly more likely to be academic programs and to be affiliated with the Ryan program.

At the time of the study, prior to the Dobbs ruling, more than half the U.S. states had legislation restricting abortion care, and 57% of national teaching hospitals had internal restrictions that limited care based on gestational age and indication, particularly if the indication was elective, the authors reported. The researchers relied on designations from the Guttmacher Institute in December 2020 to categorize states as “hostile” to abortion (very hostile, hostile, and leans hostile) or non-hostile (neutral, leans supportive, supportive, and very supportive).

Most of the programs (80%) had no religious affiliation, but 11% had a Catholic affiliation and 5% had a different Christian affiliation. Institutional policies either had no restrictions on abortion care (38%), had restrictions (39%) based on certain maternal or fetal indications, or completely banned abortion services unless the mother’s life was threatened (23%). Among the Christian-affiliated programs, 60% had bans and 40% had restrictions.

Half (49.7%) of the responding programs relied rigidly on ultrasound criteria before offering any intervention for suspected early pregnancy loss, regardless of patient preferences. The other half (50.3%) incorporated ultrasound criteria and other factors, including clinical judgment and patient preferences, into a holistic determination of what options to present to the patient.

Before accounting for other factors, the researchers found that only a third (33%) of programs in states with severe abortion restrictions considered additional factors besides imaging when offering patients options for miscarriage management. In states without such abortion restrictions, 79% of programs considered both imaging and other factors (P < .001).

In states with “hostile abortion legislation,” only 32% of the programs used mifepristone for miscarriage management, compared with 75% of the programs in states without onerous abortion restrictions (< .001). The results were similar for use of office-based suction aspiration: Just under half the programs (48%) in states with severe abortion restrictions included this technique as part of standard miscarriage management, compared with 68% of programs in states without such restrictions (P = .014).

Those findings match up with the experience of Cara Heuser, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist from Salt Lake City, who was not involved in this study.

“We had a lot of restrictions even before Roe fell,” including heavy regulation of mifepristone, Dr. Heuser said in an interview. “In non-restricted states, it’s pretty easy to get, but even before Roe in our state, it was very, very difficult to get institutions and individual doctor’s offices to carry mifepristone to treat miscarriages. They were still treating miscarriages in a way that was known to be less effective.” Adding mifepristone to misoprostol reduces the risk of needing an evacuation surgery procedure, she explained, “so adding the mifepristone makes it safer.”

Institutional policies had the strongest impact

Before accounting for the state a hospital was in, 27% of institutions with restrictive abortion policies looked at more than imaging in determining how to proceed, compared with 88% of institutions without abortion restrictions that included clinical judgment and patient preferences in their management.

After controlling for state policies and affiliation with a family planning training program or a religious entity, the odds of an institution relying solely on imaging guidelines were over 12 times greater for institutions with abortion restrictions or bans (odds ratio, 12.3; 95% confidence interval, 3.2-47.9). Specifically, the odds were 9 times greater for institutions with restrictions and 27 times greater for institutions with bans.

Only 12% of the institutions without restrictions relied solely on ultrasound criteria, compared with 67% of the institutions with restrictions and 82% of the institutions that banned all abortions except to save the life of the pregnant individual (P < .001).

Only one in four (25%) of the programs with institutional abortion restrictions used mifepristone, compared with 86% of unrestricted programs (P < .001), and 40% of programs with institutional abortion restrictions used office-based aspiration, compared with 81% of unrestricted programs (P < .001).

Without access to all evidence-based treatments, doctors are often forced to choose expectant management for miscarriages. “So you’re kind of forced to have them to pass the pregnancy at home, which can be traumatic for patients” if that’s not what they wanted, Dr. Phillips said.

Dr. Flink-Bochacki further noted that this patient population is already particularly vulnerable.

“Especially for patients with early pregnancy loss, it’s such a feeling of powerlessness already, so the mental state that many of these patients are in is already quite fraught,” Dr. Flink-Bochacki said. “Then to not even have power to choose the interventions that you want or to be able to access interventions in a timely fashion because you’re being held to some arbitrary guideline further takes away the power and further exacerbates the trauma of the experience.”

The biggest factor likely driving the reduced access to those interventions is the fear that the care could be confused with providing an abortion instead of simply managing a miscarriage, Dr. Flink-Bochacki said. “I think that’s why a lot of these programs don’t have mifepristone and don’t offer outpatient uterine aspiration,” she said. “Because those are so widely used in abortion and the connotation is with abortion, they’re just kind of steering clear of it, but meanwhile, patients with pregnancy loss are suffering because they’re being unnecessarily restrictive.”

The research did not use any external funding, and the authors and Dr. Heuser had no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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