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Judge halts rule to curb tele-med abortions in Iowa

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DES MOINES | A judge has granted a request by Planned Parenthood of the Heartland to suspend a state ban on the organization's use of a video conferencing system to distribute abortion-inducing pills in Iowa.

Polk County District Judge Karen Romano issued a temporary stay Tuesday for a board rule that was to take effect on Wednesday.

“While the court acknowledges the board’s expertise in regulating the provision of medical care in Iowa, the court is not entirely persuaded that (the board’s proposed rule) achieves its goal in ensuring the safe and healthy administration of health care services,” Romano wrote in her 16-page opinion.

She said that denying access to telemedicine abortion would increase the need for surgical abortion which would be much more invasive and risky.

“Women may even choose to self-terminate their pregnancies if they are left with no other option, which is undoubtedly the least safe method of abortion,” Romano said. 

The board, which oversees and regulates physicians and medical practices in Iowa, voted 8-2 in August to adopt a rule that would have stopped Planned Parenthood clinics from dispensing abortion-inducing pills via a video-conferencing system.

Physicians use a remote-controlled system to conduct medical assessments with patients in rural Iowa clinics. They then are able to dispense Mifepristone, also known as RU-486, in the early stages of a pregnancy.

A majority of the board members cited concerns over the medical care being provided to rural women. The proposed administrative rule would have established standards of practice for physicians who prescribe and administer abortion-inducing drugs. The revised rules would require in-person meetings between doctors and patients along with direct after-care services.

Supporters say Planned Parenthood’s practice -- implemented in 2008 -- is safe and patients get the same level of care as those who see a doctor in person. They say telemedicine procedure was thoroughly researched to ensure it was in full compliance with Iowa law and service helps women in remote parts of the state.

Abortion opponents asked the state board to block the program, saying it violates state medical standards and poses a health risk to women because it doesn't entail a face-to-face meeting with the doctor.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland applauded the judge's decision.

"Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our patients," said Planned Parenthood of the Heartland President and CEO Jill June in a statement. "Allowing the rule to be ineffective during litigation will ensure that Iowa women can continue to receive safe health care, without delay, from the provider they trust."

Planned Parenthood supporters have argued the ban reflected board members' opposition to abortion.

Gov. Terry Branstad did not directly respond to the judge's ruling, but spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor commends the board for its "open and transparent process" in approving the ban.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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