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Lawyers spar over webcam abortion regulations before Iowa Supreme Court

by | Mar 11, 2015

By Dave Andrusko

Iowa Supreme Court

Iowa Supreme Court

The seven-member Iowa Supreme Court today took up a lawsuit filed by a mammoth Planned Parenthood affiliate that challenged a rule issued by the Iowa Board of Medicine that prior to dispensing abortion pills, the abortionist be present and perform a physical examination on the pregnant woman.

Since 2008 Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (PPH) has performed some 7,000 abortions via a teleconferencing system that is built around the abortionist not being in the same room as the mother—so-called webcam (or telemed) abortions.

The rule was passed in 2013 and upheld by Polk County District Court Judge Jeffrey Farrell. But Planned Parenthood of the Heartland appealed the decision to the state’s highest court. As a result the rule is currently not in force.

Reading the accounts in the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Radio, today’s arguments for and against burrowed through familiar terrain.

Representing Planned Parenthood, attorney Alice Clapman spoke of what she said were burdens the rule placed on women seeking an abortion:

“The health risks from a delayed abortion, the loss of autonomy that comes from being denied your only non-surgical abortion alternative, and being forced into an alternative between surgery or carrying your pregnancy to term.”

Clapman argued that the Board of Medicine’s decision-making process was “highly irregular,” according to Register reporter Tony Leys, and clearly aimed at limiting abortion. “The board had no medical evidence to support its decision,” she told the justices.

Leys wrote that while the justices had concerns about the ruling at least some were hesitant to overrule the medical board.

Justice Thomas Waterman noted that the medical board is mainly made up of physicians, and he asked Clapman whether the justices should second-guess them. “We went to law school, not medical school,” Waterman said.

Clapman responded that the court has an important oversight role for state agencies, including the medical board.

Reporting for Iowa Public Radio, Dar Danielson explained that Solicitor General Jeffery Thompson (arguing for the Iowa Board of Medicine) told the justices that the Board of Medicine’s concern was safety.

“This is a unique drug. This is not a typical pharmaceutical,” said Thompson. Furthermore

“What our board of medicine did was agree with you that there needs to be a standard of care decision, frankly in the face of prior complaint for discipline against somebody that alleged they weren’t following the standard of care,” Thompson says. “And they promulgated a standard of care that focused on safety and tried to resolve these questions, this uncertainty of safety, in favor of the woman.”

Thompson went further, citing PPH’s own study which Thompson said shows that women were not kept from getting abortions they wanted, as PPH claimed was the effect of regulating webcam abortions.

“They studied two years before they started telemed and two years after, and what it shows is there was no huge unmet need, number one,” Thompson told the court. “Patients didn’t drive shorter distances, number two. And in general, it had not real impact.”

Danielson wrote that in his summary, Thompson said the Board of Medicine passed the rule to ensure the safety of the woman who uses the abortifacients Danielson wrote that in his summary, Thompson said the Board of Medicine passed the rule to ensure the safety of the woman who uses the abortifacients and that such rule making was within its power.

The role of standards of care and legislation is to resolve uncertainty. And that’s what this standard of care does, it’s necessary,” Thompson says. “You may not agree with it, I may not agree with it frankly, but it is within the Board of Medicine to do this, and it is absolutely constitutional.”