Iowa Supreme Court Strikes Down State Rule Banning Telemedicine Abortion

June 19, 2015 — The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday unanimously ruled against a state rule banning the use of telemedicine in abortion services, the Des Moines Register reports (Leys, Des Moines Register, 6/19).

Case Background

The Iowa Board of Medicine in 2010 ruled that doctors at Planned Parenthood of the Heartland could continue to dispense medication abortion drugs via its telemedicine system. However, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) later replaced all of the board members, who then approved rules barring PPH from administering medication abortions through the system. PPH challenged the ban in court.

In September 2014, the Iowa Supreme Court stayed the ban as the case proceeded through the legal system. The court in March 2015 heard oral arguments over whether the ban was a legitimate exercise of state authority or an unconstitutional restriction on women's access to abortion. The case was heard by six justices, with one justice recusing himself from the case.

The case is the first involving abortion rights to reach the state Supreme Court in more than 40 years and has been watched nationally by stakeholders on both sides of the abortion-rights debate (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/12).

Ruling Details

The justices ruled that women's rights under both the Iowa and U.S. constitutions were violated by the ban.

According to the justices, health care providers use telemedicine to provide several different types of health care services. As a result, IBM's rule restricting solely telemedicine abortion made "[i]t ... difficult to avoid the conclusion that the board's medical concerns about telemedicine are selectively limited to abortion," they wrote.

Overall, the justices ruled that the requirement imposed an "undue burden" on women's right to the procedure. According to the court, national standards on medication abortion do not require providers to perform physical exams prior to administering the drugs. Further, they noted that clinic staff can perform any required physical testing and submit the results to the physicians. An in-person physical exam would not "provide any measurable gain in patient safety," the justices wrote.

The state Supreme Court did not address PPH's request that they establish abortion as a right under the state constitution, noting that it did not need to respond to that question since the board's rule violated the U.S. Constitution (Des Moines Register, 6/19). The justices wrote, "Because the Board agrees the Iowa Constitution protects a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy to the same extent as the United States Constitution, we find the rule violates the Iowa Constitution" (AP/CBS News, 6/19).