Iowa Board of Medicine Votes to Adopt Rule That Will Likely End Telemed Abortion Access in the State

On Friday, the Iowa Board of Medicine voted 8 to 2 to adopt a rule that is likely to end the state's telemedicine abortion program.

The bill's house passage comes three months after an Iowa judge blocked from going into effect a state medical board rule that would have banned the practice. Yanik Chauvin / Shutterstock

On Friday, the Iowa Board of Medicine voted 8 to 2 to adopt a rule that is likely to end the state’s telemedicine abortion program. The vote was held two days after the ten-member board took over three hours of public testimony regarding the potential rule change in the state’s first-of-its-kind program.

At the hearing, board members, all of whom have been appointed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, questioned doctors and advocates on whether a physician must have an in-person exam with a patient before a medication abortion, be physically present in the room when a patient takes the first dose of the medication abortion pill RU-486, and provide a follow-up examination after the procedure. Participants also discussed whether allowing a doctor to talk to a patient via video conference increases medical risk in terminating a pregnancy.

Although the state’s telemed abortion program began in 2008 and has never had a formal complaint against it from a doctor or patient, Dr. Greg Hoversten, chairman of the Iowa Board of Medicine, expressed concerns that the practice amounts to “experimentation” on Iowa patients. “That really bothers me that 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 at the hearing.

Hoversten admitted after the testimony ended that he opposes all abortion, but that he was interested only in “establishing a standard of care for patients, and his personal views would not influence his vote,” according to the Quad-City Times.

The claim that abortion opponents were against the program because of its alleged harm to women rather than its ability to increase access to abortion services was repeated by anti-choice activists who instigated the rules review as well. “Obviously we are an organization that believes in the life of the unborn, but we are just as concerned for the safety of women in an issue like this,” Iowa Right to Life Executive Director Jenifer Bowen told Radio Iowa.

Iowa Right to Life helped organize the petition process that began the rules review in June. The anti-choice organization was also a player in the unsuccessful 2010 campaign to have telemed abortion banned, claiming it violated a state law that says only a doctor can provide an abortion.

Although a number of witnesses during the hearing relayed stories of purportedly encountering patients who experienced adverse effects after a medication abortion, not one of the witnesses offered a first-hand account of a failed procedure or their own complications during the three-and-a-half-hour meeting. The Iowa Medical Society did testify against any immediate rule change, asking the board to consider talking more to doctors rather than rushing to end the program.

“We think the rule as you have it today is premature, [and] that more analysis, more evaluation, more study, more discussion with the profession is important,” said Jeanine Freeman, deputy executive vice president of legal affairs and policy development for the Iowa Medical Society, which represents over 5,000 doctors across the state.

The Wednesday hearing was preceded by a rally at the state house that was hosted by proponents of telemed abortion and attended in part by local Democratic lawmakers speaking out about Gov. Branstad’s anti-choice agenda since entering office.

Among those speaking at the rally was Sen. Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines). “I’d like to set the record straight today: Iowans didn’t elect Branstad to be sheriff, and Iowans certainly didn’t elect Branstad to be a gynecologist for Iowa’s women,” said Sen. Petersen.

There are 15 Planned Parenthood clinics in Iowa currently using telemed to administer RU-486, and over 3,000 patients have used the program, with no reported complaints. The earliest the new rules voted on by the board could go into effect would be November 6, the Associated Press reports.

According to the Des Moines Register, one of the board members who voted no, Algona-based attorney Ann Gales, said she felt the board rushed “to pass the new rules without sufficient consideration.” She told the newspaper, “I absolutely would vote for the right rules,” but that the ones voted on “weren’t proper.”

The rate of abortions in Iowa has dropped by 30 percent since 2008, according to state data, despite fear among the anti-choice community that telemed abortions would increase the rate due to easier access. A similar drop in the birth rate in the state points to the likelihood that fewer people are experiencing unintended pregnancies.