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Court ruling backs webcam abortion ban

By JOANNE FOX, Globe editor
(Email Joanne)

DES MOINES – A Polk County District Court judge ruled Aug. 19 in favor of the Iowa Board of Medicine’s ban on webcam abortions.

Judge Jeffrey Farrell said Iowa regulators were within their rights when they voted to ban a first-in-the-nation, videoconferencing system that let physicians dispense abortion drugs to women in rural clinics.

Bishop 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.”

Bishop Nickless expressed his pleasure that Judge Farrell “saw the importance of insuring the health and safety of both the mother and baby.”

“I attribute this victory to many the prayers of the people offered to our Lord and our Blessed Mother for an end to abortion and to the tireless work of the prolife advocates,” he noted. “Along with today’s ruling, we continue to see glimmers of hope, such as the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics in Storm Lake in 2012 and in Fort Dodge in 2013.  We must persevere in offering prayers and support to build a culture of life, as this ruling provides more momentum for us all.”

Webcam abortions

Last year, the Iowa Board of Medicine voted to adopt and file ARC 1034C to establish standards of practice for physicians who prescribe or administer abortion-inducing drugs to terminate a pregnancy via videoconferencing.

In a “webcam” abortion, a doctor first discusses the procedure via closed-circuit video with the patient. If the physician agrees it is appropriate for the woman to abort, the doctor enters a computer code that opens a drawer with the abortifacient drugs. 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 Dr. Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, headquartered in Washington, D.C. “Iowa’s regulation and today’s decision demonstrate that doctors agree that chemical abortion can be dangerous for women and requires a careful examination. 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 which 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,” the board stated. “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.”

Suit filed

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, Des Moines, had sued the board, arguing its decision to not allow doctors the use of the video conferencing system would limit rural women’s access to abortions. The agency began using the practice in 2008.

Iowa Right to Life alerted the public on 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.

“We welcome today's ruling by Judge Farrell in which he rules in favor of the Iowa Board of Medicine's decision to ban the dangerous practice of webcam abortion in the State of Iowa," she added. “While the plaintiffs have vowed to appeal this common-sense decision, 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."

In his decision, Judge Farrell said the medical board has the authority to regulate this medical practice.

"There is no question that the board has the power to establish standards of practice for the medical profession,” he said. “Those standards include the authority to adopt and enforce standards regarding the minimal standards of acceptable and prevailing practice.”

Decision to be appealed

The system has remained in place during this time. The judge's ruling is set to take effect in 30 days. Planned Parenthood will appeal the ruling.

"While the board of medicine claims it is acting to protect women's safety and health, its true purpose is to prevent women from receiving an abortion if and when they need one. And the rule would actually jeopardize women's health by delaying their care," Penny Dickey, the agency's chief operating officer, said in a prepared statement. "Planned Parenthood of the Heartland will continue to fight for evidence-based medicine and a woman's right to make her personal health care decisions."

Tom Chapman, director of the Iowa Catholic Conference noted there was “ample” evidence presented leading up to the board’s vote questioning whether providing a chemical abortion following a consultation only by videoconference was good medical practice.

“In every case, the drugs that cause a chemical abortion have serious effects,” he pointed out. “If abortions are to take place, the safety and informed consent for the women involved should be among our chief concerns.”

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