Mifepristone pill packs. The medication is part of a two-part regimen used for medication abortion. Anastasia E. Lennon

NEW BEDFORD — For years, people living in southeastern Massachusetts who wanted or needed an abortion would have to travel 30 to more than 50 miles for an abortion provider.

But one year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutional right to abortion, access in this area has increased and New Bedford residents can now get abortion care without needing to travel outside of the city.

Health Imperatives, which has seven locations in southeastern Massachusetts, including the city, on Monday started offering medication abortion, also called abortion by pill.

“We really are filling a major gap,” said Julia Kehoe, CEO and president of Health Imperatives. “Until Monday, people would have to travel either to Attleboro or Boston or Providence in order to receive abortion care. And that puts a lot of pressure on people who are needing this care … they need to get it when they need it, in their own community.”

YouTube video

The organization received $700,000 in funding last year from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health as part of the Baker administration's efforts to increase access to reproductive health care across Massachusetts.

Last year, The Light reported crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) outnumbered abortion providers 8-3 within an approximate 50-mile driving distance for New Bedford residents, with locations in the city and Fall River. These centers do not provide abortion and often try to dissuade people from getting one. But now, abortion providers will outnumber CPCs in the region.

To start, the clinics altogether have 500 doses on hand, and Kehoe said several people have already made appointments.

There are also clinics in Brockton, Hyannis, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Plymouth and Wareham, and all will offer medication abortion. For those wanting or requiring surgical abortion, Health Imperatives will continue to refer patients to other providers.

Abortion by medication involves the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol. The former dilates the cervix and blocks progesterone, which is needed to sustain a pregnancy. The latter is taken 24 to 48 hours later; it causes cramping and bleeding, which then expels the pregnancy tissue from the uterus.

Medication abortion has grown increasingly common nationally and in the state. According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, medication (denoted as medical/“non-surgical”) accounted for nearly 50% of abortions in 2021, up from about 31% in 2016, and 24% in 2011. Data for 2022 will be released this summer.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states this type of abortion procedure is safe and effective. The pills are approved for use up to the 10th week of pregnancy. In Massachusetts, nearly 73% of abortions were at zero to eight weeks of gestation in 2021, per DPH data.

“Both nationwide and in Massachusetts, medication abortion is a hugely popular choice for people looking to end a pregnancy before 10 weeks,” said Rebecca Hart Holder, executive director of Reproductive Equity Now, an advocacy group. “And people choose it for a variety of different reasons. It really has been an important part of expanding access throughout Massachusetts … It's a huge step in filling gaps in abortion access in the southeastern region of the state.”

Dr. Danielle Roncari, an OB-GYN, previously told The Light that some patients prefer the privacy of medication abortion, and that it can be similar to what would happen during a miscarriage. It has up to a 99% success rate, and can occur within a few hours.

The pills can be taken in a doctor’s office or clinic, or sent by mail following a telehealth visit depending on the provider, which can help reduce barriers to access presented by transportation costs and distance.


Related


When patients come to Health Imperatives, they can expect to receive an ultrasound and counseling from at least two people who can answer questions or address concerns. Nurse practitioners or doctors will prescribe the medication, and after patients take the medications, staff will follow up with them.

Patients will have the option to take the first dose at the clinic, or at home along with the second dose. They won’t need to go to a pharmacy as the medication will be on site, Kehoe said.

The organization has trained its staff on the new service and increased security at its clinics. Kehoe would not specify exactly what measures, citing security concerns.

Health Imperatives states it will not turn away people who are seeking a medication abortion because of their inability to pay. Kehoe said many insurers cover abortion, but if not, the clinic and other community partners can assist with finding ways to address financial barriers.

The Women’s Fund SouthCoast, for example, last year in partnership with Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts contributed funds to an access program that helps cover costs, such as transportation and lodging, that may accompany an abortion procedure, as well as the care itself.

“To be able to have the medication right here in our community for those who are eligible is huge,” said Christine Monska, executive director of the Women’s Fund SouthCoast. “I think it’s going to cut a lot of different barriers.”

According to Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, its program funds help hundreds of people annually, including a few dozen people from southeastern Massachusetts.

There is also the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund, which helps people who live in or are traveling to eastern Massachusetts for an abortion with funding and logistical support.

“I think what’s really exciting about this time is even though it’s very difficult nationally in terms of a lot of people trying to take rights away or a lot of negativity about people’s care … we see a governor and a legislature and a network of incredible providers and advocates who are committed to reducing health disparities in Massachusetts,” Kehoe said.

Gov. Maura Healey, left, and Health Imperatives CEO Julia Kehoe at the Martha’s Vineyard clinic in late June 2023. Photo credit: Joshua Qualls

Gov. Maura Healey, who as attorney general and now governor has taken measures to protect abortion care, visited Health Imperatives on Martha’s Vineyard late last month.

“It’s an anniversary of a really terrible, misguided decision by the Supreme Court. Something that a lot of people didn't think could happen actually happened with Dobbs and the overturning of Roe,” said Healey at the press conference. “I have said that we will continue to be in Massachusetts a beacon of hope for patients and for providers here in Massachusetts and around this country.”

Amid the nationwide threats to medication abortion and mifepristone, including a federal court case in Texas, Healey issued an executive order this spring ordering that the state’s 2022 Shield Law be interpreted as protecting access to medication abortion as well.

Healey this spring also requested that UMass Amherst order 15,000 doses of mifepristone to ensure it remains an option in Massachusetts.

Further, under a bill signed in 2022 by then-Gov. Charlie Baker, all public universities in the state must ensure access to medication abortion for students, either through direct access or a referral to outside services.

Public colleges and universities by November must submit plans to DPH outlining how they will provide medication abortions or assist their students in the process of getting one.

Editor's note: This story was updated July 5, 2023, to add information about access to medication abortion at public colleges and universities, and the availability of mifepristone in Massachusetts.

Email Anastasia E. Lennon at alennon@petarenapro.com.

Thank you to our sponsors

Founding benefactors: Joan and Irwin Jacobs fund of the Jewish Community Foundation, Mary and Jim Ottaway

Bank 5 logo.
Jardim & Marotta logo.
Sylvia Group logo.
Unger LeBlanc logo.

Learn more about our community of individual donors

For questions about donations, contact Chrystal Walsh, director of advancement, at cwalsh@petarenapro.com.

For questions about sponsoring The Light, contact Peter Andrews, director of business development and community engagement, at pandrews@petarenapro.com.