Iowa high court to rule on telemedicine abortions ban

AP News
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Posted: Jun 18, 2015 5:20 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The Iowa Supreme Court is expected to rule whether a state medical board overstepped its authority by requiring doctors to be in the room when a woman receives abortion-inducing medication rather than allowing it to be administered remotely via video conferencing.

The court indicated on its website that it would issue an opinion Friday in Planned Parenthood of the Heartland's lawsuit against the Iowa Board of Medicine. An opinion that effectively supports the board's restrictions could have big implications for women who live far from Iowa's clinics that provide abortion services, which are all in bigger cities.

The procedure, which involves a doctor pushing a button that remotely dispenses abortion-inducing medication in a rural clinic, is known as a telemedicine abortion and is fairly unique to Iowa. The Midwest state was the first to offer it in 2008 and it's where most are performed — more than 7,000 to date. Minnesota offers a small program.

Under a 2013 rule approved by the state medical board, a doctor must be physically in the room with a patient when dispensing abortion-inducing drugs. It doesn't specifically refer to the term telemedicine abortion, but the language effectively prohibits it. The procedure remains in effect pending the outcome of the case.

Supporters of telemedicine abortion say the ban is politically motivated and point out no other procedure available via telemedicine has been altered to require an in-person examination by a doctor. The board says its rule is based on safety concerns.

Planned Parenthood attorneys say the state's high court could address any number of the arguments it raised earlier this year, including whether the medical board has the authority to ban the procedure. Planned Parenthood says the rule puts an undue burden on women who must travel hundreds of miles to see a doctor face-to-face in urban clinics, and could prevent some from being able to get medication-induced abortions, which are only performed in the first nine weeks of a pregnancy.

More than a dozen states in recent years have enacted bans with similar language, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a national nonprofit that follows reproductive health issues. None of those states ever offered telemedicine abortion, according to the group.

Planned Parenthood claims the board, which is made up primarily of practicing doctors, approved the ban after Republican Gov. Terry Branstad was re-elected in 2010. When the board approved the new rule in 2013, all 10 of its main members had been appointed since Branstad's re-election. One was a Catholic priest.

Mark Bowden, executive director of the board, denied the characterization in an interview earlier this year and said the board "doesn't deal with politics, it deals with medicine." He said state law requires that no more than five board members can be affiliated with the same political party.

The board has repeatedly said its rule was based on safety concerns, particularly a woman's physical examination before any drugs are dispensed. They question the training of employees at the rural clinics, who conduct ultrasounds prior to patients meeting with doctors via a secure video setup.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the provider of telemedicine abortion in Iowa, says its employees receive adequate training and that it's the same system used for in-person medication abortions.

There are no reported cases of serious complications involving telemedicine abortions, according to Planned Parenthood. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a nonprofit group of women's health care physicians, says medical abortion via telemedicine is "safe, effective, highly acceptable to patients, and facilitates access to care for women in rural areas."

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