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Telemedicine Used By Both Sides in Abortion Debate

While telemedicine abortions remain a hotly contested issue in several states, Kentucky approves a bill to permit pre-abortion counseling via video.

By Eric Wicklund

- Telemedicine is wading into the hotly contested abortion debate once again.

Kentucky lawmakers this week approved legislation that would enable doctors to counsel women via real-time video link to fulfill the commonwealth’s “informed consent” requirements. Kentucky is one of several states to mandate counseling prior to an abortion, and officials there say it’s the first to OK telemedicine as an alternative to in-person consults.

The bill – expected to be signed by Gov. Matt Bevin, who was elected last year on an anti-abortion platform – ends more than a decade of debate over the informed consent requirement. Last month the Republican-controlled Senate voted to require an in-person meeting between doctor and patient at least 24 hours before an abortion. This week the Senate agreed to compromise language passed by the Democrat-controlled House that would allow video consults.

In comments after this week’s vote, Bevin said the new bill, with its telemedicine language, “will ensure that the legislative regulations follow the full intent of the law with regards to a face-to-face, real-time informed consultation.”

Supporters have said that some doctors have skirted the law by allowing their patients to listen to a recorded message in lieu of the face-to-face meeting. They also noted the telemedicine option will help woman who can’t easily visit a doctor in person or who would have been forced to make more than one appointment.

Abortion rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, denounced the bill, saying it interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.

Ironically, both sides of the debate have had reason to support mobile technology. Last June, Iowa’s Supreme Court shot down that state’s ban on the practice of abortion by telemedicine, allowing the state’s three Planned Parenthood clinics to continue treating women through secure two-way video consults.

The process, in use since 2008, enables a doctor to connect with a patient via video feed and watch while a trained staff member takes vitals, collects a blood sample and performs and ultrasound. The doctor then reviews the information, talks to both patient and staff member and, if appropriate, remotely unlocks a receptacle containing the abortion-inducing drugs. The doctor then watches the patient take the medication.

In rejecting the state’s ban, Iowa’s high court noted that since Iowa has only three Planned Parenthood clinics, the ban places an “undue burden” on women who would have to travel hundreds of miles to visit a clinic at a time when a doctor is there.

In all, 18 states have banned telemedicine abortions, requiring that the doctor and patient be in the same location when medication is administered. In Kansas, pro-abortion rights House members announced last month that they would introduce legislation to, among other things, lift that state’s ban on telemedicine abortions.

Minnesota is the only other state that allows the procedure at present.

In Idaho, Planned Parenthood has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against two laws passed last April. One, the Telehealth Access Act, allows providers to prescribe medications during a video consult with a patient, but specifically prevents drugs used to induce and abortion. The second law requires that a physician be present with the patient during an abortion.

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