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Iowa Supreme Court Considers State Constitutional Right to Abortion

Jessica Mason Pieklo

During oral arguments in a case challenging the state's telemedicine abortion ban, Iowa Solicitor General Jeffery Thompson said he would not object to a ruling protecting abortion rights in the Iowa Constitution.

The Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in a case that threatens to end the use of video-conferencing technology to help deliver abortion care to rural Iowans.

The case involves a challenge to an administrative rule passed by the Iowa Board of Health in 2013 that reversed an earlier 2010 decision by the board to allow Planned Parenthood’s telemedicine practice to continue, concluding that it was safe and consistent with prevailing standards of care.

The practice was the first of its kind and allows physicians at rural clinics to use a remote-controlled closed-circuit video-conferencing system to see patients and dispense abortion medications.

Following the Iowa Board of Health’s 2010 decision, Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican and an outspoken anti-choice advocate, replaced the entire board with long-time opponents of reproductive rights, including a priest.

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The new board members in August 2013 reversed the former board’s decision and voted to ban the practice with an administrative rule that requires in-person meetings between doctors and patients for the administration of medication abortions and direct after-care services.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland sued to block the rule in October 2013, arguing the rule was politically motivated and directly and improperly targeted Planned Parenthood of the Heartland’s telemedicine practice. An Iowa judge ruled against Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, finding that board did not abuse its authority in passing the rule.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland appealed that decision to the Iowa Supreme Court, which in September issued a stay, allowing Planned Parenthood to continue with its telemedicine practice while its appeal of the Iowa ruling proceeded.

During Wednesday’s arguments at least some of the all-male panel of judges on the Iowa Supreme Court appeared concerned that the state Board of Health was improperly singling out and targeting abortion providers for heightened regulation.

Justice David Wiggins asked whether the board was considering such specific rules for other areas of medical practice. ”Is there any other standard of care such as this contained in any rule or regulation of the (Board of Medicine) that you’re aware of?” he asked Iowa Solicitor General Jeffery Thompson.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Thompson said.

But not all of the justices were as critical of the state’s case. Justice Thomas Waterman noted that the medical board is mainly made up of physicians, and asked Planned Parenthood attorney Alice Clapman whether it was the court’s job to second-guess them.

“We went to law school, not medical school,” he said.

The state appeared to make a key concession during arguments though. Planned Parenthood, as part of its challenge to the Iowa Board of Health Rule, has asked the Iowa Supreme Court to declare that the Iowa Constitution protects women’s right to abortion.

Thompson, the state lawyer, told the court he wouldn’t object to such a ruling, but that if they do, justices should also rule that the regulations do not impose an “undue burden” on the right to choose abortion.

A decision from the court could be months away. Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood’s telemedicine practice remains in use pending the outcome of the case.

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