Right as the Labor Day weekend began, Iowa officials took steps to severely limit reproductive health access for women in the state. Although that move went largely unnoticed before the three-day weekend, it could end up having a huge impact on the future of abortion care for people across the country.
On Friday, Iowa’s Board of Medicine voted to eliminate the largest telemedicine abortion program in the country. That means doctors in the state won’t be allowed to use video technology to prescribe abortion-inducing drugs to rural and low-income women who don’t have the means to travel to the nearest clinic — even though they’ve been safely doing so for the past five years.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland has been operating its telemedicine abortion program since 2008, and there’s no reason it should have come under any kind of particular scrutiny this summer. Studies have repeatedly found that it’s a safe method of delivering reproductive care, and patients are just as satisfied after speaking with a doctor over a video conference as they are after making an in-person trip to a clinic. Nonetheless, the Board of Medicine has been considering banning the practice for the past several months — and the Friday vote makes it official.
“This decision is a political attack aimed at restricting access to abortion in Iowa. Proponents of this rule aren’t against telemedicine technology; they are against safe, legal abortion and are unjustly targeting our system with no scientific information or evidence to back their claims,” Planned Parenthood of the Heartland’s president, Jill June, said in a statement.
Indeed, telemedicine technology is becoming increasingly common. An estimated 10 to 12 million Americans use it each year to remotely receive care from a medical professional, and the U.S. government now relies on the practice to treat chronically ill veterans. Of course, opponents of telemedicine abortion typically aren’t opposed to the practice in general — they just don’t want it to be used for abortion. It’s yet another way that the anti-choice community is attempting to segregate abortion care from the rest of reproductive health services.
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland has been somewhat of a pioneer when it comes to telemedicine abortion care. A few other Planned Parenthood affiliates have begun to offer the services, but Iowa has been home to the largest program. It’s been difficult to expand into other states largely because anti-choice lawmakers have worked to cut off the possibility. Over the past several years, states have rushed to enact bans on telemedicine abortions even if those services weren’t actually offered yet — effectively curtailing the potential medical advances in abortion care before they’ve even had a chance to get off the ground.
That’s a serious problem because telemedicine programs may represent the next battleground for abortion rights. Iowa has touted its program as an effective way of restoring health care access for poor and rural women who don’t live in counties with Planned Parenthood clinics, and wouldn’t be able to make the trip to the nearest one. That’s becoming an unfortunate reality for low-income women in states across the country. Thanks to a mounting pile of state-level restrictions on abortion, clinics are being forced to close their doors and patients are being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get the care they need. For many poorer women, that represents too big of an expense — and women’s ability to access an abortion is becoming directly proportional to her economic privilege. Telemedicine abortion services could help address some of those regional and economic disparities. But now that Iowa has moved to ban it, there may be little hope for the fledgling programs in other states.
In a public hearing last week, health care professionals condemned Iowa’s medical board for rushing to throw out a program that has been largely successful. Since 2008, Iowa’s telemedicine program has helped an estimated 3,000 rural women end a pregnancy within the first trimester. OB-GYNs suggested that the Board of Medicine — which has been stacked with anti-abortion members over the past two years — was simply pursuing a political agenda. Now that the Board has officially voted, critics say their worst fears have been confirmed. “It’s extremely alarming that the Board of Medicine, which is duty bound to make evidence- based medical decisions, rushed to judgment without reviewing evidence gathered by their own staff,” June’s statement points out. “This undermines the concept and integrity of the Board of Medicine and health care in Iowa as we know it.”