August 12, 2013 — Although telemedicine can safely expand abortion access to women in areas that lack providers, 11 states have banned the practice, according to the Guttmacher Institute, USA Today reports.
The restrictions on abortion contrast with other areas of telemedicine, which state lawmakers largely have declined to regulate.
Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, said, "Telemedicine is spreading across the country in chronic disease and mental health care, but abortion's the only way we're seeing it restricted." She added, "Whenever there's an advancement in health care, an abortion restriction is never far behind."
Telemedicine can be used to provide medication abortion care during the first nine weeks of pregnancy. After an in-person medical exam with a nurse, the patient meets with a physician via video conference. The physician remotely opens a drawer in front of the patient, who takes the first dose of the medication while the physician observes. The patient then returns home, takes the remaining dose and arranges for a follow-up visit within two weeks.
Iowa Program Targeted
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which pioneered the telemedicine method, has used it to provide medication abortions for more than 3,000 women since 2008. The Iowa Board of Medicine is moving forward with plans to ban the practice and has scheduled a hearing on the proposal for Aug. 28.
According to a study published last year in the American Journal of Public Health, PPH's program helped women in rural areas access abortion but did not increase the state's abortion rate. The study also noted that there was a slight decline in the number of abortions being performed during the second trimester.
Abortion-rights opponents claim the method is unsafe. Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said the process lacks oversight and could be dangerous if women experience side effects. "Pills are being distributed like Tic Tacs," he said, adding, "Nobody would accept medical treatment like that for any other procedure."
Abortion-rights supporters dispute claims that medication abortion or telemedicine is unsafe. According to USA Today, 1.52 million U.S. women obtained medication abortions from 2000 through 2011. In a few cases women have developed fatal infections, but FDA has not determined that the drugs caused those complications.
PPH President and CEO Jill June said prohibiting telemedicine would force women who live far away from abortion providers to travel to unfamiliar areas. "If she is not able to obtain the care she needs in her own community, then she has to leave her community, her support system and her hometown," June said (Railey, USA Today, 8/11).