DES MOINES, Iowa — An Iowa judge Aug. 19 upheld a state medical board's ban on a first-in-the-nation videoconferencing system that allows physicians in different locations to dispense abortion-inducing drugs to women in rural clinics.
Judge Jeffrey Farrell of the Polk County District Court said the Iowa Board of Medicine was within its rights to ban the method.
Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City called the ruling "a small, and yet, very important victory for the culture of life."
"The intentional killing of innocent human life, including webcam abortions, is always deplorable and intrinsically evil," he said. "No matter the intentions and circumstances, abortion always harms the lives of the mother and baby."
Under the system used in some Planned Parenthood clinics, an out-of-town doctor first discusses the drug-induced abortion method via closed-circuit video with the patient at the clinic. If the physician agrees it is appropriate for the woman to have an abortion, the doctor enters a computer code from his location that opens a drawer with the abortifacient drugs in the rural clinic. The woman ingests the first pill while the doctor watches, then goes home, takes the remaining pills and waits for the abortion to take place.
"Women can die when life-ending drugs are carelessly administered," said Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, based in Washington.
"Iowa's regulation and today's decision demonstrate that doctors agree that chemical abortion can be dangerous for women and requires a careful examination," she said. "Providing these drugs without a physical examination by a physician amounts to nothing less than reckless gambling with the lives of women."
The Iowa Board of Medicine voted 8-2 in 2013 to adopt language that would require doctors to be physically present when dispensing abortion pills and to provide follow-up exams.
The board stated at the time that "the goal of the new rule is to protect the health and safety of Iowans."
"The board believes that all patients, including those in rural Iowa, deserve the highest level of care," it said. "The board believes that a physician must establish an appropriate physician-patient relationship prior to the provision of a medical abortion. The physician's in-person medical interview and physical examination of the patient are essential to establishing that relationship."
In his decision, Farrell said there was "no question that the board has the power to establish standards of practice for the medical profession. Those standards include the authority to adopt and enforce standards regarding the minimal standards of acceptable and prevailing practice."
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland in Des Moines had sued the board, arguing its decision to not allow doctors the use of the videoconferencing system would limit rural women's access to abortions. The agency began using the practice in 2008.
The system has remained in place during the court challenge. The judge's ruling is set to take effect in 30 days. Planned Parenthood will appeal.
Iowa Right to Life alerted the public about what it "webcam abortion" when the practice was implemented.
"Over the last six years, we have worked tirelessly to educate Iowans about this dangerous practice that risks the health of women all over Iowa," said Jennifer Bowen, executive director of Iowa Right to Life. She welcomed Farrell's ruling.
"While the plaintiffs have vowed to appeal this common-sense decision," she said, "we know having reviewed the Iowa Board of Medicine's rationale behind the rule at question in the case and after hearing from women who have suffered complications and negative effects of the procedure, a ban on the practice was the only logical outcome in this case."
Penny Dickey, Planned Parenthood's chief operating officer, said the Iowa Board of Medicine's "true purpose" is not to protect women's safety and health but "to prevent women from receiving an abortion if and when they need one."
Tom Chapman, director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, said there is plenty of evidence that "drugs that cause a chemical abortion have serious effects." "The safety and informed consent for the women involved should be among our chief concerns," he added.
The Thomas More Society submitted a friend of the court brief in the case along with research that supports the need to protecting women's health.
Matthew Heffron, the society's Omaha, Nebraska, attorney who wrote the brief, echoed what Chapman said about the "numerous complications" of the abortion drugs that women's health and lives. "These complications are exacerbated when a doctor is not physically present for the procedure," he said.