Telemed Abortion's Day in Court

Mar 11, 2015

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the Iowa Board of Medicine faced off at the Iowa Supreme Court Wednesday over providing abortion services with telemedicine. In Iowa only doctors can prescribe the medication that induces miscarriage. Since it's expensive to staff doctors at all its clinics, Planned Parenthood physicians teleconference with patients seeking abortion services.

For a telemed abortion diagnostic tests are preformed at the local Planned Parenthood clinic, which the physician reviews. Then, while teleconferencing with the patient, the doctor determines if a medical abortion is appropriate. If so the doctor remotely opens a drawer stocked with the abortion-inducing drugs. 

The Board of Medicine wants the women’s health organization to stop providing telemed abortions. The board says since a physician isn't physically in the same room as a patient, video conferencing isn’t a safe method for pregnancy termination. 

Planned Parenthood’s attorney Alice Clapman says the justices should consider why the Board of Medicine is only concerned about a physician’s presence for abortion, but not for other telemedicine procedures. 

"The new telemedicine rules do not impose this standard on any other healthcare even though it’s clear that abortion is relatively safe and there are other forms of care that are being provided in Iowa through telemedicine that are equally or more risky," Chapman said. "The board had no medical evidence to support its decision."

Telemed abortions first came to the attention of the Iowa Board of Medicine back in 2010, when it was comprised of members appointed by Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat. The 2010 board decided to allow Planned Parenthood to continue providing abortion services through telemedicine.

In 2013, however, a new incarnation of the board made up of appointees by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad voted to end telemed abortion. 

Iowa Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson represents the Board of Medicine. He says it was incumbent on the board to establish a standard of care.

"And they promulgated a standard of care that focused on safety and tried to revolve these questions of uncertainty of safety in favor of the women," Thompson said. "You may not agree with it, I may not agree with it frankly, but it is within the Board of Medicine to do this, and it is absolutely constitutional." 

Planned Parenthood reports it has provided more than 6,800 medical abortions since first introducing the telemedicine option in 2008. Aside from one clinic in Minnesota, Iowa is the only state where abortion services are provided using telemedicine.