DES MOINES — The Iowa Board of Medicine pushed ahead with a new rule that would end so-called telemedicine abortions despite the objections of its legal director and representatives from the Iowa Attorney General’s office.
“There’s been no investigation, no research,” board legal director Kent Nebel told board members shortly before they voted 8-2 Friday afternoon to accept a petition to outlaw the practice. “In my 15 years in serving the board, this is unprecedented.”
At issue are state regulations that allow doctors to prescribe Mifenpristone, also known as RU-486 or the “morning-after pill,” to women via a remote-controlled system to conduct medical assessments. The systems generally are used in rural areas of the state where people don’t have easy access to medical facilities.
“This falls outside of what we’ve done in the past,” said Board Chair Gregory Hoversten, who called for a vote. “Never before have we had this much salience on an issue.”
The petition in question reportedly contains the signatures of 20,000 Iowans to “Stop Webcam Abortions.” It specifically asks the board to “make adjustments in their guidance and rules to end webcam abortions in Iowa.”
The affirmative vote starts a process in which the board can take comments on the petition in advance of a public hearing, which likely will be scheduled for the end of August if the board publishes the notice by July 5. Board Executive Director Mark Bowden said it would.
The earliest a vote on new rules could be taken, Bowden said, is 90 days from publication. The latest is 180 days.
“That’s almost half of a year,” he said.
Still, Assistant Attorney General Theresa Weeg said the board was moving too quickly. Weeg, who serves as a legal liaison to the board, said state code contains specific timelines for the rules process and rushing the decision could open the board to lawsuits.
“It’s against my advice,” Weeg said.
But Brenna Findley, an attorney for Gov. Terry Branstad, said the board has discretion in these cases because state code says the board has only to advise petitioners of the timelines.
“We all have personal views, but we have public responsibilities as well. This seems very unusual,” said board member Ann Gales, an attorney and one of the two dissenting votes.
She argued the board should take time to seek input and investigate the petition before voting to accept it.
But Daniel McConchie, vice president of government affairs for Americans United for Life and one of three members of the public who addressed the board – two for an immediate vote, one against – stressed the matter is urgent.
“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.
He said treating women remotely is a lower standard of care than women who are treated with in-person visits.
State Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroschell, D-Ames, traveled to Des Moines for the hearing. An abortion rights supporter, she was disturbed by the swiftness with which the board acted.
“The less public input the better, don’t you think?” she asked sarcastically.