Robots—ahem, Roe-Bots—Provided Abortion Pills Outside the Supreme Court Today

The robots were remotely operated by physicians from states protected by shield laws, which allow them to legally dispense the pills to people living in states that ban abortion. 

Robots—ahem, Roe-Bots—Provided Abortion Pills Outside the Supreme Court Today

As abortion rights protesters convened outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday morning for oral arguments in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, a case that could decide the fate of medication abortion access in the U.S., they were joined by surprising allies: Robots dispensing prescriptions for abortion pills as well as the pills themselves, operated remotely by physicians in states with telemedicine abortion shield laws. Shield laws protect doctors and health care providers who prescribe and send abortion pills to patients in states that ban abortion from facing criminal charges and legal repercussions. Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, Vermont, New York, and California all have such laws in place.

The robots are a collaboration between Aid Access, a group that offers abortion pills via telemedicine to people in all 50 states, and the Dutch abortion rights nonprofit Women on Waves and Abortion Access Front. Medication abortion typically involves taking mifepristone pills to end the pregnancy and misoprostol to induce a miscarriage; the robots distributed mifepristone pills outside the court as the justices weighed a legal challenge to the FDA’s policies around mifepristone.

And since the robots are barred from dispensing abortion pills without prescription, Rebecca Gomperts, founder of Aid Access, says her organization came prepared to connect people with doctors in states with shield laws via the robots: “If people need abortion pills, they can come to the robots, then the providers will do a consultation with the people that need it,” she said. Doctors then can “push the button” from the safety of their state and the pills can be given to the patients that need it. The rollout of the robots at the Supreme Court is meant to be a “demonstration” of how to remotely access abortion pills anywhere. “The Supreme Court ruling, one way or another, will not change this.”

Gomperts told Jezebel that the remotely operated robots—or, ahem, Roe-bots—are meant to educate the public about people’s options to access medication abortion no matter where they live in the U.S., particularly as the case at the Supreme Court sows confusion. Upon hearing that the question of medication abortion is at the court, many people will automatically assume abortion pills are on the brink of being banned. Gomperts says the decision to deploy the Aid Access robots during oral arguments is meant to combat this disinformation and remind people they can access abortion pills wherever they are right now—in a distinctly memorable way.

The Supreme Court is currently weighing whether the Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, a group of anti-abortion doctors, has legal standing to sue the FDA over rule changes it made in 2016 and 2021 to make abortion pills more accessible. (In 2016, the FDA updated the label on mifepristone to state that it’s safe to take up to 10 weeks into a pregnancy, up from seven weeks, and required just two in-person appointments to obtain the pills instead of three; in 2021, the Biden administration said providers could prescribe and mail mifepristone during the covid pandemic.) If the court determines the anti-abortion group has standing to sue the FDA, it will then rule on whether a lower court ruling undoing these 2016 and 2021 rule changes is constitutional. A ruling isn’t expected until late June. 

“The robots are a way for us to visualize the situation with shield laws allowing remote provision of medication abortion to people in anti-abortion states,” Gomperts said. “It’s a way to send a message that no matter what the Supreme Court decision will be, or irrespective of the decision, Aid Access will continue to provide abortion pills to people who need it in all states—there’s no way you can stop us, by mail, by robot. Shield laws will continue to protect providers.”

Courtesy of Rebecca Gomperts

Prior to the demonstration, Aid Access helped abortion rights organizers prepare an amicus brief for the Supreme Court case detailing their experiences receiving medication abortion via telemedicine through Aid Access. In the amicus brief, 10 different women recount safe, uncomplicated experiences accessing and using medication abortion in their homes; one woman details seeking the medication to exit an abusive relationship. 

“Jane Liberty #2 is not alone in relying on a telemedicine abortion to escape a dangerous home life,” the brief states, referencing a qualitative study that showed direct-to-patient telemedicine abortion provided the opportunity for safe self-administered abortion care” when women in abusive or dangerous situations “otherwise may not have been able to receive an abortion safely.”

After Tuesday’s demonstration, Gomperts, who’s based in Amsterdam, says the robots will stay with U.S.-based abortion rights activists for the time being and will likely appear at future demonstrations and protests. “If there are any campaigns, for example, in Texas, or other places where abortion is banned, we could put out the robots and do something similar,” she said. “We’re working with some amazing providers in shield law states, who are dedicated to making sure you can get abortion care wherever you live.” Tuesday’s Supreme Court oral arguments provided a perfect stage to bring attention to their work.

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