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Iowa Supreme Court Weighs Challenge to Telemedicine Abortion Ban

Iowa Supreme Court Weighs Challenge to Telemedicine Abortion Ban

March 11, 2015 — The Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a case that will decide whether Planned Parenthood can continue a telemedicine program that has enabled more than 7,000 women in the state to access medication abortions since 2008, the Des Moines Register reports (Leys, Des Moines Register, 3/9).

Case Background

In the case, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland is challenging an Iowa Board of Medicine rule that bans the use of telemedicine in abortion services (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/17/14).

PPH's system helps women in rural areas that lack abortion access to obtain medication abortions.

Under the program, women seeking abortion care are evaluated by staff members at their local clinic and then put in contact with a physician in Des Moines or Iowa City through a secure teleconferencing system. If the physician determines that the patient is an appropriate candidate for a medication abortion, he or she uses a computer command to remotely open a drawer containing abortion-inducing medication in front of the patient. The woman takes the first medication while the physician observes her via the video monitor and then takes the second drug at home. The patient is told to return later for a follow up at the local clinic (Des Moines Register, 3/9).

Although the Iowa Board of Medicine in 2010 ruled that doctors at PPH could continue to dispense medication abortion drugs via the telemedicine system, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) later replaced all of the board members, who then approved rules barring PPH from administering medication abortions through the system (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/2/14).

PPH challenged the ban in court. The Iowa Supreme Court stayed the ban in September as the case proceeds through the legal system (Women's Health Policy Report, 9/17/14).

Legal Issues

The case is the first involving abortion rights to reach the state Supreme Court in more than 40 years and is being nationally watched by stakeholders on both sides of the abortion-rights debate, the Register reports. An attorney from Planned Parenthood Federation of America will present PPH's case during Wednesday's oral arguments.

The court will decide two issues: whether the medical board followed state law in assessing and ruling on the issue, and whether the Iowa Constitution protects the right to abortion.

If the court sides with PPH on the first issue and finds that the board violated state law, it might not rule on the second issue, according to Ryan Koopmans, an Iowa attorney who blogs about state court cases.

The board has said its decision was based on protecting patient safety. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood supporters have said the ban aims to restrict women's access to abortion services and noted that the board's ruling included language taken verbatim from a petition from antiabortion-rights advocates.

Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, said a ruling finding a state constitutional right to abortion "would be very helpful in safeguarding reproductive rights and send a message that regulations designed for political purposes and are medically unsound have no place in the state" (Des Moines Register, 3/9).