News Law and Policy

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland to Appeal Court Decision Banning Telemed Abortions in Iowa

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland announced that it will ask the Iowa Supreme Court to review a decision by a lower court allowing the Iowa Board of Health to ban the use of telemedicine for abortion services.

An Iowa judge ruled on Tuesday that state regulators did not abuse their authority when they voted to ban the use of video-conferencing systems that allow doctors to dispense abortion-inducing medication to patients in rural clinics across the state.

Following the decision, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland announced it would appeal the lower court’s ruling with the Iowa Supreme Court.

Last year, the Iowa Board of Medicine adopted an administrative rule that requires in-person meetings between doctors and patients for the administration of medication abortions and direct after-care services, effectively banning the use of telemedicine abortion services.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland challenged the rule, arguing that it was politically motivated because it directly targets its telemedicine practice, the only one in the state. The board of medicine’s ten members were all appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican and outspoken anti-choice advocate.

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Planned Parenthood’s system was the first of its kind and, according to health advocates, has the potential to revolutionize abortion access in rural communities. The system allows Planned Parenthood doctors in Des Moines or Iowa City to communicate with patients and view sonogram results via closed-circuit video; if they conclude a patient is eligible for a medication abortion, the doctors enter a computer command that opens a drawer in front of the patient. The patient then reaches into the drawer, removes the pills, and takes the first one while the doctor watches via video. The patient then goes home to take the remaining medication.

“The court’s ruling is incredibly disappointing, but our fight for Iowa women continues,” said Penny Dickey, chief operating officer of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, in a statement announcing the appeal. “While the Board of Medicine claims it is acting to protect women’s safety and health, its true purpose is to prevent women from receiving an abortion if and when they need one. And the rule would actually jeopardize women’s health by delaying their care.”

The rule will remain blocked by court order for 30 days while Planned Parenthood of the Heartland files its appeal.

Anti-choice activists have targeted Planned Parenthood’s practice of telemedicine in Iowa for years. In 2010, the Iowa Board of Medicine first investigated the telemedicine delivery system and concluded it was safe and consistent with prevailing standards of care. Following that investigation, Gov. Branstad replaced the entire medicine board with anti-choice activists, including a priest. In August 2013, the new board reversed the former board’s decision and moved forward with the ban.

“[T]his was a political decision and not a decision based on medical science, even though it’s been touted as that,” said Dr. John Olds, a physician who previously served on the board and who now acts as an advisor to the body, in a statement.

According to reproductive health-care advocates in Iowa, should the ban be allowed to take effect some patients in the state would be forced to travel more than 500 miles round-trip, multiple times, to access safe, legal care at one of the three clinics in the state providing abortion services. “What is happening in Iowa is part of a dangerous trend: using any means necessary, politicians are imposing restrictions on abortion that will take safe and legal abortion away from women living in parts of the country where access to health care is already very limited,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a statement. “It’s unacceptable and unconstitutional to deny safe care from women in need, which is why we are going directly to the state Supreme Court and fighting with everything we’ve got.”

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