In the latest effort to limit women's access to abortions, the Iowa Board of Medicine proposed a new rule prohibiting doctors from prescribing the RU-486, the abortion pill, via telemedicine. Anti-abortion activists have dubbed the practice as "webcam abortion."
The rule would affect mostly women in rural areas lacking easy access to medical facilities, despite objections from the board's own legal director and the state's assistant attorney general. There is no existing evidence to show that remote prescribing RU-486, also known as Mifenpristone, has any more negative consequences than face-to-face assessments.
"There's been no investigation, no research," Kent Nebel, the board's legal director, told members of the board on Friday. "In my 15 years in serving the board this is unprecedented."
Mifenpristone is currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to terminate pregnancies up to 7 weeks of gestation. Although the drug has been shown to be effective in small doses as an emergency contraception, Mifenpristone or RU-486 is different from the "morning-after pill," or Plan B, which recently was approved for over-the-counter use without proof of age.
The board voted 8-2 afterward to accept a petition prohibiting the practice of allowing doctors to prescribe RU-486 to patients via long-distance medicine.
Board chairman Gregory Hoversten called for the vote, citing public support. "This falls outside of what we've done in the past," he said. "Never before have we had this much salience on an issue."
Much of that "salience" comprises the signatures of 20,000 Iowans on a petition to "Stop Webcam Abortions," asking the board to "make adjustments in their guidance and rules to end webcam abortions in Iowa."
The ruling begins a process in which the board may accept public comment on the petition before a public hearing, which would likely occur by the end of August. Although the public has nearly a half-year to comment and wage a counter-campaign to protect so-called webcam abortions, Assistant Attorney General Theresa Weeg thinks the board is moving too quickly.
Given specific timelines for the processing of state regulations, Weeg said the board would risk lawsuits should they rush the decision. "It's against my advice," Weeg said.
Ann Gales, one of the board's two dissenters on the vote, agreed the board should take more time to seek input from Iowans on the issue. "We all have personal views, but we have public responsibilities as well. This seems very unusual," Gales, said.
In support of the proposed prohibition, Daniel McConchie, an executive with Americans United for Life and one of three members of the public who addressed the board, stressed the urgency of saving unborn lives in the meantime.
"With Iowa being ground zero for the phenomenon of so-called "web-cam abortions," it is appropriate for the Board of Medicine to consider whether the standard of care of patients in the state is compromised by this practice," he said.
McConchie also argued that telemedicine in general has a lower standard of care than in-person visits to a clinician.