Thanks to a ruling handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court on Friday, patients in the state will continue to be able to use the latest technology that makes the abortion pill more accessible.
The court decision is the culmination of a contentious fight over Planned Parenthood’s “telemedicine abortion” program — an innovative practice of allowing doctors to remotely prescribe abortion-inducing medication with the help of video technology — that has stretched on for the past several years.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, the group that pioneered telemedicine abortion, has used its program to help an estimated 7,200 Iowans obtain medication abortion since 2008. The video technology is particularly advantageous for low-income and rural Americans who struggle to travel to the nearest abortion clinic to get the pills.
Research into Iowa’s telemedicine abortion program has found that there’s no difference between the patients who are prescribed the abortion pill in person versus the patients who consult with a doctor remotely. Surveys among the patients who have used the video technology service report low rates of complications and high levels of satisfaction — reflecting the fact that the best evidence in the field confirms medication abortion is very safe.
Nonetheless, the state’s board of health effectively banned telemedicine in 2013, approving a regulation that requires abortion doctors to be in the physical presence of their patients when they prescribe abortion-inducing drugs. The board — which was stacked with abortion opponents appointed by anti-choice Gov. Terry Branstad (R) — cited concerns over the safety of the program.
Pointing out that other areas of health care have been using telemedicine for years, and there’s no good reason to single out abortion in this way, Planned Parenthood sued the board. This week, the court unanimously ruled in favor of the national women’s health organization — determining that the restriction on telemedicine abortion is unconstitutional because it presents an undue burden on women’s abiliity to exercise their reproductive rights.
“This ruling is a big victory for Iowa women,” Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, said in a statement, adding that the ruling confirms that a state “cannot single out abortion with a different set of rules that don’t apply to any other health care procedure.”
A ruling in the opposite direction could have had a huge ripple effect on abortion access across the country. Driven by the right-wing group Americans United for Life (AUL), which writes draft legislation for anti-choice laws and shops it around to conservative lawmakers, 16 states have adopted some type of restriction on the way doctors may administer the abortion pill. Many of these laws are specifically intended to prevent telemedicine abortion programs from ever getting off the ground. If the country’s oldest and largest telemedicine abortion program had been shut down, it would have provided even more fuel to this particular legislative strategy.
According to the Des Moines Register, this week’s decision marks the first time in more than 40 years that Iowa’s Supreme Court has considered an abortion case.