Iowa board hears views on abortion pill system

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Officials with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland faced tough questioning Wednesday from the Iowa Board of Medicine, which is considering whether to ban a first-of-its-kind system in which doctors distribute abortion-inducing pills remotely to patients in 15 clinics across the state.

The organization says it has received no patient complaints about the video conferencing system, which has been dispensing pills in Iowa since 2008 — including at least 3,000 since 2010. However, the board held the public hearing Wednesday as part of the process for considering a petition that would end the practice.

Dr. Thomas Ross, who works for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, testified Wednesday that the practice is safe and patients get the same level of care as those he sees in person. He also said this service helps women in remote parts of the state.

“I would call it safe. I would say the women and their families in Iowa are very fortunate that Planned Parenthood of the Heartland is offering this service to them,” Ross said. “Please do not do anything that would interfere with this safe procedure.”

Board Chairman Dr. Greg Hoversten questioned Ross about the fact that this practice was first adopted in Iowa, asking how Planned Parenthood established safety standards.

“That really bothers me. Iowa women are the first ones to get this in this fashion,” Hoversten said. “There’s something wrong there. It doesn’t seem right.”

Hoversten said after the hearing that he opposes abortion rights but that this matter was about establishing a standard of care for patients, and his personal views would not influence his vote.

Board members questioned Ross and others about the care given patients who get these abortions via video-conferencing and what kind of follow-up treatment they receive. Ross said patients are examined by nurses and get follow-up appointments and information about emergency care.

Among those testifying against the practice was West Des Moines Dr. Gregory McKernan, who opposes abortion, who said he was concerned about a doctor not being present with the patient.

“It’s your task to ensure best standards. It’s also your task to protect people,” McKernan told the board.

But Planned Parenthood of the Heartland Board Chairman, Dr. Robert Shaw, said the effort to change the rules is an attempt to restrict abortion access.

“The goal of this is to eliminate abortion,” Shaw said. “As a medical provider, I’m confident Planned Parenthood’s telemedicine delivery system is safe and effective.”

Eleven states have laws requiring that a physician be physically present when prescribing abortion-inducing pills. Several more states have similar laws going into effect later this year.

A group of doctors petitioned the board in June to ban the practice in Iowa. At a meeting that month, the board voted 8-2 to initiate a process to determine whether to establish state guidelines to end the so-called “webcam abortions.” The earliest the board could adopt new rules barring the practice would be at a meeting Friday, but Hoversten said he was not sure if a vote would happen then.

Efforts to bar telemedicine abortions have failed in the state Legislature. Opponents petitioned the Board of Medicine to halt the practice in 2010, but the board never took a public action. Since then, the board’s membership has changed and it is now made up of appointees from Gov. Terry Branstad, who opposes abortion rights.

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