CREDIT: Mary Willie/Des Moines Register
Iowa is home to the nation’s first telemedicine abortion program — essentially, a method of expanding reproductive health care to rural women by allowing them to take an abortion-inducing pill over a video chat with a doctor. The telemedicine program has been safely operated by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland for the past several years, and was approved by the state’s Board of Medicine in 2010. Now, the Board of Medicine is making moves to ban it.
What happened in between 2010 and 2013 to inspire such a dramatic turnaround? Did the program have a sudden downturn, or did patients express dissatisfaction with the care they received?
In fact, quite the opposite. Several studies found that the telemedicine abortions being performed in Iowa were safe and effective, and patients didn’t see any difference between meeting with a doctor over a video chat versus meeting with a doctor in person. Even when women go to the doctor in person to receive the abortion pill, they’re typically allowed to return home to take the pill in privacy anyway. The number of abortions being performed in the state didn’t suddenly skyrocket, either — thanks to a widespread program in the state that has encouraged more women to use long-acting contraception, Iowa’s abortion rate has actually dropped by 30 percent.
What’s changed isn’t the standard of care that’s being provided through Planned Parenthood’s video program, but the Board of Medicine itself. After the 2010 review, Iowa’s Republican governor stacked the board with abortion opponents. Gov. Terry Branstad — an adamant abortion opponent himself — replaced all ten members of the supposedly nonpartisan medical board with anti-choice appointees. At the beginning of the summer, those new board members voted to ban Iowa’s telemedicine program. This week, they’ve been moving forward with that goal.
At a public hearing on Wednesday, the state panel voiced skepticism about the telemedicine practice. Dr. Greg Hoversten, the board’s chairman and a former state legislator who sponsored anti-abortion bills, suggested that expanding abortion access to rural women was too much of an “experiment on Iowa women.” Hoversten said he was uncomfortable with the state conducting experiments in that way. “Iowa women are the first ones to get this in this fashion. There’s something wrong there. It just doesn’t seem right,” Hoversten said.
The hearing stretched on for more than three hours, and the medical professionals who spoke where critical of the board’s seemingly politically-motivated interference into the program. One retired obstetrician, Dr. William Burke, said he was “embarrassed” by the Board of Medicine’s move to ban telemedicine abortion. “I’m going to ask you to please make your decision not on your personal prejudice and not on your religious beliefs, and not on political pressure, whether it’s subtle or not so subtle. But make it based on the evidence,” Burke told the board members.
Jeanine Freeman, a vice president for the Iowa Medical Society, said the board was rushing too quickly to adopt a new rule to regulate abortion that could have far-reaching implications for doctors in the state. Freeman noted that the proposed rule was actually written by anti-choice petitioners who are pushing for a telemedicine ban, and the board simply accepted that wording “hook, line and sinker.”
Now that the public hearing has concluded, the Board of Medicine will review the rule and decide whether to adopt it.
Iowa isn’t the only example of supposedly non-partisan state officials staking out a position on abortion. West Virginia’s attorney general is currently inciting backlash by conducting his own investigation into the safety of his state’s abortion clinics. Georgia’s medical board is considering enacting abortion restrictions that the legislature wasn’t able to pass this year. Ohio recently stacked its health board with anti-abortion activists. And Virginia’s health board recently approved sweeping abortion clinic restrictions that are already forcing some to close.