Late last week, the Washington Post reported that conservative politicians were targeting a relatively new method of physician-distributed medical abortion pills. Commonly called “telemedicine abortion,” this method allows physicians to consult with women via a video link-up in a clinic. If the physician is satisfied that the woman understands the procedure, he or she can then use a remote control to open a drawer in the clinic that contains the pills. This method is currently only used in Iowa, where more than 2,000 women have used this service through Planned Parenthood of the Heartland since 2008.
Now, legislators in Iowa and Nebraska have announced that they will try to ban telemedicine abortions, and this week Nebraska senator Tony Fulton is expected to introduce a state bill that would require doctors to be physically present to administer the pill. (Never mind that telemedicine abortions aren’t currently available in his state.)
Though it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, telemedicine abortion really only differs from a standard medical abortion appointment in the use of video-conferencing. The woman still has an ultrasound to determine fetal age; is examined by a nurse; and undergoes counseling. The doctor still reviews the woman’s chart and talks with her before prescribing the pills. In short, the same protocol used for an in-person appointment is used here.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2005 there were nine abortion providers in Iowa. Ninety-three percent of counties in the state had no abortion provider, and 19% of women who sought abortion had to travel at least 50 miles to obtain an abortion. With telemedicine abortion, women can go to most of the state’s 19 Planned Parenthood clinics and receive treatment. It’s hard not to wonder if it’s this increased access that angers anti-choicers and drives them to make statements like, “The abortion industry keeps coming up with new ways to kill unborn children, and this is one of them.”
It is expected that other anti-choice politicians will take similar steps to prevent telemedicine abortion from being allowed in their states. This fight could have larger repercussions, as telemedicine has been considered a promising way to provide medical care in remote or underserved areas.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.