Iowa service prescribes abortion pills over Web

Conservative lawmakers in some states are taking aim at a practice that they say could greatly expand the number of women who choose to terminate their pregnancies: Abortion pills prescribed over the Internet.

State lawmakers in Iowa and Nebraska have announced their intention to try to ban telemedicine abortions, which allow women seeking abortions to go to a branch clinic to consult with a doctor located miles away via Internet videoconferencing. Then, with the push of a remote control, the doctor can open a drawer in the clinic that contains RU-486, also known as the abortion pill.

Currently, telemedicine abortions are available only in Iowa, where more than 2,000 women have taken advantage of the practice since 2008 through the state’s Planned Parenthood affiliate. Previously, the organization provided abortions at a half-dozen clinics, concentrated in the state’s larger cities. Because of the telemedicine program, women in the first nine weeks of pregnancy can obtain abortion pills at most of the organization’s 19 centers, which are scattered across the state.

Supporters say the program provides a vital service to women in the state’s rural reaches, where abortions can be virtually impossible to obtain. They say the process is identical to an in-person appointment.

“The only difference is the point in time when the physician gets involved and reviews all the material and asks if she’s ready,” said Kyle Carlson, director of legal and lobbying for Planned Parenthood of the Heartland. “This is the future of medicine in all fields, not just abortion.”

But anti-abortion advocates in Iowa and elsewhere say they want to prevent the practice from gaining traction. They say that they will push laws in several states where they have friendly legislatures – a number that has swelled since the November sweep of governor’s mansions and statehouses by Republicans.

“I’m not trying to inhibit telemedicine, but we’re talking about chemical abortions here. It’s not appropriate,” said Nebraska State Sen. Tony Fulton, a registered Republican, though Nebraska’s legislature is nonpartisan. He plans to introduce a bill when the legislature convenes next week that would require doctors to be physically present to administer an abortion pill. “RU-486 is not without controversy and has not been without complications. It seems to me we should leave these Webcam abortions to the realm of science fiction.”

Nebraska is one of the most restrictive states on abortion policy. Last year, it became the only state to pass a “fetal pain” bill that bars the procedure after 20 weeks without an exception for the health of the mother. It is being viewed as a model for anti-abortion lawmakers in other states.

Abortions are available at only two sites in the state, in the large cities of Omaha and Lincoln. LeRoy Carhart, one of a handful of doctors in the country who perform abortions late in pregnancy, left the state after the “fetal pain” bill was passed. He has moved his operation to other states.

Anti-abortion activists say telemedicine will be one of their main targets in 2011.