Health Canada lifts restrictions on so-called abortion pill

Mifegymiso can now be prescribed up until nine weeks into pregnancy, and doctor training is no longer required.

Mifegymiso can now be prescribed up until 9 weeks into pregnancy, doctor training no longer required

There are currently 27 doctors in Nova Scotia who have either completed or registered for training to prescribe Mifegymiso. (CBC)

The so-called abortion pill can now be prescribed up until nine weeks into a pregnancy as opposed to the previous seven weeks, after Health Canada lifted a number of restrictions on the medication, Mifegymiso.   

Mifegymiso is a two-drug combination that terminates pregnancy in the early stages.

Dr. Lianne Yoshida, medical director for the Termination of Pregnancy Unit at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, said she's happy to see that the gestational age limit has been extended, as that will help with the co-ordination of care.

"Getting everything done, especially the lab tests and the ultrasound within 49 days was quite difficult and the two weeks makes a big difference in terms of access to those extra tests," she said.

Training no longer required

The changes announced today mean doctors will no longer be required to take a specialized course in order to prescribe the pill, although it is still recommended.

Pharmacists across the country will now be permitted to dispense the medication, although patients will still need a prescription for it. Previously, some provinces did not allow pharmacists to dispense it. 

Patients also won't have to give written consent anymore to take Mifegymiso.

Rebecca Stuckey, the outreach and education co-ordinator at The South House, a gender justice centre in Halifax, said lifting the training requirement will provide much broader access to medical abortions. 

"Instead of having to find out which doctors can prescribe it, just being able to access that through any doctor will be amazing," she said.

In a press release, Health Canada said the changes come after the department "received and rigorously reviewed new scientific evidence submitted by the drug sponsor," and that the department has also "undertaken a thorough review of new and existing scientific literature on the safe use and effectiveness of Mifegymiso."

The abortion pill has been free in Nova Scotia since Nov. 1. Twenty-seven doctors have taken the training that was previously required.

Medication over-regulated for years

Dr. Gus Grant, registrar and CEO for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia, said Mifegymiso has been over-regulated and laced with confusing messages for years.

"I'm just delighted that Health Canada has responded to the lobby by the medical community and advocates on behalf of women's health to make these changes," he said.  

Dr. Gus Grant, registrar and CEO for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia, says Mifegymiso has been over-regulated for years. (Pat Callaghan/CBC)

Grant said the college, which regulates the practice of medicine in Nova Scotia, will step in line with Health Canada's new rules.    

The drug was over-regulated for scientific reasons, Grant said, as the side-effects were not initially well-established.

But there were other reasons, too.

"When this drug came to market, therapeutic termination of pregnancy was less accepted and more controversial than perhaps it is now," he said. 

Not available at Halifax Sexual Health Centre

Pharmacists in Nova Scotia were previously permitted to dispense Mifegymiso if the patient had a prescription for it. One hundred and thirty pharmacists in the province had completed the training, which was not required but gave them more knowledge about the medication.

The so-called abortion pill is not available at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre.

The centre's medical director, Dr. Joyce Curtis, said four of its doctors have taken the course and can prescribe the medication but are not currently doing so. She said this is because the medication requires at least three appointments and the centre's scheduling is such that the same doctor may not be working during the necessary time frame.

Curtis said her team is working to find a way to provide the pill.

About the Author

Kayla Hounsell

Senior reporter

Kayla Hounsell is a Network Reporter with CBC News based in Halifax. She covers the Maritime provinces for CBC national news on television, radio and online. She welcomes story ideas at kayla.hounsell@cbc.ca.