Iowa no longer has the only statewide telemedicine abortion network in the country. Today, Maine Family Planning has started providing the service at 16 of its clinics.
"It was helpful for us to be able to look at another very rural state, not necessary a completely blue state, another state we could relate to and say this can be done," says Maine Family Planning's Jennifer Thibodeau. "It was just inspiring to see another state that we really felt similar to, be able to expand access at a time when other states are really struggling to keep doors open."
Both Iowa and Maine law stipulate that only physicians may preform an abortion, but neither state requires the doctor to be in the same room as the patient during the procedure. Since medical abortions are achieved through oral medications that induce miscarriage, as long as a physician prescribes the medicine, telemed abortions are legal.
However, unlike Iowa, a nurse practitioner at Maine Family Planning simply hands the patient the abortion-inducing medication after teleconferencing with the doctor. In Iowa during the teleconference, a Planned Parenthood doctor presses a button to remotely open a drawer in front of a patient, who will then remove the medication.
Last year Planned Parenthood of the Heartland successfully defended telemed abortion at the Iowa Supreme Court. The Iowa Board of Medicine had said the practice was unsafe because a physician did not preform a physical examination, though the justices unanimously ruled that the board was holding abortion to a higher standard when compared to other telemedicine procedures. The vote was 6-0, with Justice Bruce Zager recusing himself from the case.
"I think the unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling...sends a clear message to other states that these kinds of restrictions can be contested--and won," says Dr. Daniel Grossman, via email.
Grossman is an OBGYN and a senior advisor for Ibis Reproductive Health. He was the lead author of a 2011 study which found that 91 percent of women who had a telemed abortion were "very satisfied" with the process.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also says telemed abortions are, "a safe and effective way to terminate a pregnancy," and, "can be particularly beneficial to rural women, whose reproductive health needs can be underserved."
“Whether it’s medically safe or not, it’s still resulting in extinguishing a human life and the object of these organizations is just to make that easier,” says Steve Antosh of the National Pro-Life Alliance.
In addition to Iowa and Maine, telemed abortions are provided at a single clinic in St. Paul, MN. According the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for abortion rights, 18 states outlaw the practice.