Iowa Supreme Court says portions of the Iowa Board of Medicine’s rule, not consistent with standards of medical practice, place an unconstitutional burden on a woman’s exercise of her constitutional rights to an abortion.

Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Iowa Board of Medicine, No. 14-1415, filed June 19, 2015

The Iowa Supreme Court, on a 6-0 vote, invalidated as unconstitutional those portions of the IBM’s telemedicine medication abortion rule prohibiting physicians from inducing an abortion by providing an abortion-inducing drug without first providing a physical examination of the woman, without being physically present with the woman at the time of abortion-inducing drug is provided, and without scheduling a follow-up appointment with the woman at the same facility where the abortion-inducing drug was provided. In that case, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland v. Iowa Board of Medicine, portions of the IBM rule defining “abortion-inducing drug” and requiring compliance with Iowa’s law on parental notification prior to performing an abortion on a minor were not challenged on appeal and, as such, the Court affirmed them.

The Court looked to the IBM’s stated purposes for adopting its medication abortion rule (found at Iowa Administrative Code (IAC) 653-13.10 but put on hold by the Court pending the outcome of this appeal). The IBM particularly emphasized the need to protect the health and safety of women seeking a drug-induced, or medication, abortion. The Court engaged in extensive discussion of each patient health and safety interest asserted by the IBM for its rule. In doing so, the Court also looked to the IBM’s more recently adopted general standards for telemedicine practice in Iowa (IAC 653-13.11, a rule now in effect and not affected by this decision). The Court noted that physicians are required by the IBM’s general telemedicine rule to “utilize evidence-based telemedicine practice guidelines and standards of practice, to the degree they are available, to ensure patient safety, quality of care, and positive outcomes” and to perform “a physical examination, when medically necessary, sufficient for the diagnosis and treatment of the patient.”

In examining standards of medical practice for medication-induced abortions, the Court looked to practice standards of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) which provide that a physical examination by the physician prior to proceeding with a medication termination of pregnancy is not medically necessary. Rather, ACOG says, the medical information necessary to performing a medication abortion is contained in the patient’s history, blood work, vital signs, and ultrasound images which can be accessed by reviewing the patient’s records remotely or in person. The Court also found that the weight of the evidence indicates that a pelvic examination prior to administering the abortion-inducing medication does not provide any measurable gain in patient safety. The Court further looked to FDA protocol for administration of mifepristone and misoprostol to induce an abortion, noting that FDA approved protocol does not prohibit physicians from using drugs in a different, “off-label,” manner; that additional studies have led to the development of safer and more effective administration protocol; and it is that newer protocol the IBM’s rule is meant to preclude.

The Court found little medical practice or drug regulatory support for the IBM’s asserted interests in adopting its medication abortion rule but substantial challenges for a woman seeking an abortion under the rule’s physician examination and in-person requirements. “It is not disputed the rule would have the effect of prohibiting telemedicine abortions in Iowa.” In balancing the IBM’s purposes in adopting the rule, which are not supported by the medical record, in light of the burdens the rule places upon a woman seeking to exercise her constitutional rights, the resultant consequences for the woman unconstitutionally outweigh the IBM’s asserted interests.

“Most significantly,” the Court went on to say, “the Board has adopted a rule that generally approves the use of telemedicine.” Yet, in its medication abortion rule, “the Board appears to hold abortion to a different medical standard than other procedures.” As such, the Court also hinted at constitutional equal protection issues.

The IBM issued a release on June 19, the same day the Court filed its opinion, noting the Court’s decision and stating that the IBM would discuss ruling at its July 9-10, 2015 meeting.