BOISE – A North Idaho lawmaker drew national attention Monday when he received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.
Dr. Julie Madsen, who was testifying in opposition to anti-abortion legislation that Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, supports, said no, explaining, “When you swallow a pill, it would not end up in the vagina.”
“Fascinating. That certainly makes sense, doctor,” Barbieri told Madsen, amid hoots of laughter from the crowd. The exchange came during a three-hour hearing on HB 154, which would add restrictions to medication-induced abortions in Idaho, specifically aimed at preventing them from occurring via telemedicine in what opponents dubbed “web cam abortions.”
But Barbieri said later that his question was rhetorical, and he knew the answer.
“She was drawing a parallel between a colonoscopy and how much more dangerous it was than a chemical abortion,” Barbieri told The Spokesman-Review. “So, I was trying to draw out the distinctions.”
While quizzing the doctor about the difference between a colonoscopy and a medication-induced abortion, Barbieri asked her, “You mentioned the risk of a colonoscopy – can that be done by drugs?”
“It cannot be done by drugs,” Madsen responded. “It can, however, be done remotely where you swallow a pill and this pill has a little camera, and it makes its way through your intestines and those images are uploaded to a doctor who’s often thousands of miles away, who then interprets that.”
Barbieri then asked Madsen, “Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?”
That’s when the answer prompted laughter, Twitter ground into gear, and Barbieri’s question lit up social media and made the Huffington Post. Several times on Monday, his Wikipedia page was altered to include the exchange under the category for Barbieri’s education.
Barbieri, who said he adamantly supports the bill in question, wasn’t fazed. “I was being rhetorical, because I was trying to make the point that equalizing a colonoscopy to this particular procedure was apples and oranges,” he said. “So I was asking a rhetorical question that was designed to make her say that they weren’t the same thing, and she did so. It was the response I wanted.”
After much testimony both for and against the bill, the House State Affairs Committee approved it on a straight party-line vote, 13-4, with only the committee’s four Democrats objecting. Lobbyist David Ripley of Idaho Chooses Life, who wrote the bill, said it would protect women. “This is a mechanism for women to defend themselves and to hold people accountable for misdeeds,” he said.
He and other backers said it would avoid “web cam” abortions, where the patient never sees a doctor in person, though doctors and others testified that that’s not how medication-induced abortions are performed in Idaho.
“I just want to point out that I think from my perspective, telemedicine has great advantages,” Barbieri said. “It’s important to recognize cost savings, ease of use, accessibility. However, there are certain examinations and procedures which require personal hands-on exams, and I think this is one of them. I’m convinced that when a woman becomes pregnant she is no longer taking food for herself, but there is another now involved in the mother’s health, and this is a proper role of government to protect life.”
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said, “We have heard testimony from a doctor … that this a very safe and reliable form of abortion in the early term of pregnancy. … If this was about safety, we would not hear some of the arguments or discussion points about religion and separation of church and state.”
Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “In my view, HB 154 may indeed reduce the number of abortions that take place. And from the very beginning of my political career, I took the oath to protect the unborn child. And I know we all have different views on this subject, but because they are so helpless and so vulnerable, we’ve got to step up.”
The measure is one of several abortion-related bills Idaho lawmakers are considering this legislative session. Others include a proposed bill seeking to define the scope of telemedicine in Idaho, which somewhat overlaps with HB154, because it specifically bans doctors from prescribing abortion drugs via videoconferencing. In the Idaho Senate, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.
This isn’t the first time Idaho lawmakers have drawn attention while debating abortion legislation.
In 2013, Republican Rep. Ron Mendive of Coeur d’Alene drew audible gasps in a committee when he asked if the American Civil Liberties Union-Idaho’s pro-abortion stance also meant they supported prostitution. A year prior, Republican Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise drew national criticism after he suggested on the Senate floor that a doctor should ask a woman who says she was raped if her pregnancy could have been caused by “normal relations in a marriage.”