State Efforts To Ban Telemedicine for Medication Abortion Care Gaining Steam

February 11, 2013 — Telemedicine bans are abortion-rights opponents' latest tactic to restrict access to medication abortion, and the laws have been implemented in several states that do not even offer the service, Bloomberg reports.

Medication abortion, which is used up to nine weeks of pregnancy, involves a two-part drug regimen -- one dose that is typically taken at a health care provider and a second that is taken at home 48 hours later. Patients return for a follow-up visit after two weeks. Medication abortion was used in about 17% of nonhospital abortion procedures in 2008, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

To help make medication abortion available to women who live far away from clinics, a few providers have begun consulting with women via phone, videoconference and other technology, as is commonly done for other health services (Deprez, Bloomberg, 2/10). For example, in a program used by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Iowa, patients receive an ultrasound, an examination from a nurse and a consultation with a physician via the Internet on a private computer. If the patient is an appropriate candidate for medication abortion, the physician dispenses the medication remotely by pressing a button that opens a container with the drugs at the patient's location (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/16/12).

Singling Out Abortion

Telemedicine has grown rapidly in many aspects of health care and now reaches 10 million U.S. residents. Bolstered by millions of dollars in private and public funding, the growth of the technology has "revolutionized" care for people in rural and underserved areas, Bloomberg reports.

Abortion is the only type of care where lawmakers have sought to restrict telehealth services, according to Jon Linkous, CEO of the American Telemedicine Association.

In the last few years, at least 10 states have banned the use of telemedicine when administering medication abortion. In almost all of those states, the services were not being offered in the first place, Bloomberg reports.

This year, conservative lawmakers in five additional states -- Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi and Missouri -- have introduced legislation that would require doctors to be physically present when prescribing medication abortion. Most of the bills are based on model legislation written by Americans United for Life (Bloomberg, 2/10).