You’ve probably never heard of it, but recently a device that has the power to transform the abortion process hit the health care scene. It fits in the palm of a doctor’s hand and doesn’t require an electric suction machine or an operating room or fasting the night before. A patient doesn’t need to be sedated and there are and no limits on her lifestyle either before or after the procedure. In fact, she can get the entire procedure done in her lunch hour an d go right back to work. It’s nonsurgical, noninvasive and is nearly 100 percent effective. It can be completed in 60 to 90 seconds if the patient is less than six weeks pregnant and in about two or three minutes if she’s between six and 10 weeks. The device is called SofTouch. So why haven’t we heard more about it?
For starters, it’s pretty new. SofTouch was first developed in 2011 by Dr. Joan Fleischman, a Harvard-trained physician who believed there had to be gentler and less intrusive way to end a pregnancy in its very early stages. Dr. Fleischman tells Glamour that she had heard horror stories from patients about their abortion experiences, which are often more complex and invasive than necessary. “Most clinics perform the same surgical abortion procedure whether you’re in week four or month four of your pregnancy,” Dr. Fleischman explains. “But an invasive method is unnecessary for ending an early pregnancy.” Her goal was to develop something that felt, well, normal for women going through the process at the beginning of a pregnancy. The idea behind the SofTouch stems from a process called “manual vacuum aspiration” that has actually been around since the `1970s and is considered the safest form of nonsurgical abortion by the World Health Organization.. It involves either electrically or manually sucking out an embryo, but what the SofTouch does differently is reduce both the invasiveness of the procedure and improve the device used to do it. In a SofTouch pregnancy termination, a doctor attaches the device to a smooth, flexible tube and inserts the tip, which is the size of a pencil, into the opening of a woman’s cervix. The doctor then applies light pressure, which quickly and gently releases the menstrual flow and induces a miscarriage. That’s it. No scraping the uterus, no scarring, and and no harm to future fertility.
Another reason the device hasn’t gotten much attention is, simply put, that no one (the health care industry in particular) seems to like change much. Getting funding for awareness and expansion “would require a reorganization of the entire practice of abortion services,” says Dr. Fleischman. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s 2017 Fact Sheet, 59 percent of all abortions are currently provided in abortion clinics, versus only one percent at physicians’ offices. This would flip that statistic on its head, something the industry is typically reluctant to do.
This type of nonsurgical abortion also faces challenges from pro-choice and anti-choice advocates, who blanch at everything from the science to the marketing. Some pro-choice groups have been critical because they say that the topic of abortion is already subject to too much scrutiny and attention—adding another method will just complicate things further. Anti-choice activists claim that Dr. Fleischman and her team have falsified the science used to infer that early pregnancy tissue (tissue from 10 weeks or less) is more similar to a period than a pregnancy. Opponents also say that the advertising is “too positive,” (it focuses on words like “relief” and “natural”), but Dr. Fleischman takes that as a compliment—her mission is to destigmatize the abortion experience.
All this adds up to mean that the SofTouch abortion is currently only available from one provider, Early Options in New York City. It’s $1200 and not covered by insurance (though many abortions are not, and the SofTouch is actually a mid-range option in terms of price). Dr. Fleischman and her team will continue to work to make the procedure more widely available, though. “We research all of our other medical care, but not abortion,” she says. “Would anyone go get a medical procedure these days without doing a thorough search about the options, where it is provided, alternatives, and the doctors who are providing? Yet for abortion, we don’t even think to do our research. We need to talk about it.” And know about our options.