In 2008, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland rolled out a program to improve access to abortion in remote corners of Iowa. Using telemedicine, women were able to obtain the abortion pill at any of the state’s seventeen locations without a doctor on site. They simply had to walk in, see a nurse and a counselor, have an ultrasound, and consult via video chat with a doctor from one of Planned Parenthood’s three larger, urban locations. The doctor could remotely unlock a container holding the abortion pills, one of which is taken in-office and the other at home, where the abortion occurs over several days. (Still confused? The American Prospect has a nice explainer.)
These so-called “webcam abortions” quickly became a target for abortion foes in state legislatures (yielding bans in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Tennessee), who argued that the physical and psychological risks of abortion necessitated a doctor’s physical presence. It’s sweet of them to worry, but in an independent review, 91 percent of women walked away “very satisfied” with the remote procedure, which was slightly more successful than a face-to-face consultation, 99 percent to 97. Still, the practice is up for a public debate before Iowa’s board of medicine today.
One statistic that might appease pro-lifers is that the relative convenience of abortions by telemedicine did not dramatically increase the number of abortions. Just the opposite: The annual number of abortions has dropped a staggering 30 percent since telemedical abortions were introduced, from 6,649 to 4,648, according to a USA Today report. Iowa’s Right to Life believes their 70 new “crisis pregnancy centers” have successfully converted 30 percent of unhappily pregnant people into blissed-out moms-to-be. Maybe! Personally, I’m leaning toward Planned Parenthood’s explanation. They attribute the decline to the rise of long-term reversible contraceptives like IUDs and implants, which the state was until recently giving away for free, thanks to a five-year initiative financed by Warren Buffett’s late wife, Susan.