Iowa’s Telemedicine Abortions Can Continue—for Now

A stay issued late Tuesday by the Iowa Supreme Court blocks a rule designed to shut down telemedicine abortions across the state.

A stay issued late Tuesday by the Iowa Supreme Court blocks a rule designed to shut down telemedicine abortions across the state. Doctor computer via Shutterstock

Telemedicine abortions can continue in Iowa for now, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, blocking a rule by the Iowa Board of Medicine that threatened to shut down the use of video-conferencing technology to help rural Iowans access abortion care.

The administrative rule requires in-person meetings between doctors and patients for the administration of medication abortions and direct after-care services—requirements proponents argue are necessary to promote patient safety.

The Iowa Board of Health passed the rule in 2013 after previously evaluating Planned Parenthood’s telemedicine practice in 2010 and concluding that it was safe and consistent with prevailing standards of care. Following that decision Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican and an outspoken anti-choice advocate, replaced the entire board with long-time opponents of abortion rights, including a priest.

Then in August 2013 the new board members reversed the former board’s decision and voted to ban the practice.

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. 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.

Reproductive health-care advocates claim it could revolutionize abortion access for rural communities.

In August, 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, who issued Tuesday’s stay.

“This ruling is a victory for Iowa women,” Suzanna de Baca, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said in a statement following the decision. “We are pleased the court has recognized that women would be harmed by this rule—particularly women in rural and medically underserved areas. All women in Iowa deserve access to health care, no matter what zip code they live in.”

According to advocates challenging the rule, if allowed to go into effect, access to abortion services for Iowa patients would be limited to Des Moines and Iowa City, with some patients in rural and medically under-served areas forced to travel more than 500 miles round-trip, multiple times, to access care.

Tuesday’s ruling means the Iowa Board of Health’s rule will remain blocked while the Iowa Supreme Court considers Planned Parenthood’s appeal of the lower court’s August decision that would have allowed the rule to take effect.