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Idaho to stop enforcing telemedicine abortion bans

President Planned Parenthood Federation of America Cecile Richards speak to the crowd during the women's march rally, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)
By Kimberlee Kruesi Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho – Women will no longer be banned from receiving abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine in Idaho under a new agreement.

Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands announced Monday that the lawsuit settlement lifts unnecessary burdens on women seeking safe abortions.

“Women in Idaho deserve the right to have access to the safest, highest quality health care –these misguided laws do just the opposite by creating unnecessary hurdles to safe and legal abortion that are not grounded in science, but instead rooted in politics,” said Chris Charbonneau, CEO of the regional Planned Parenthood office, in a prepared statement.

The organization’s lawsuit was directed at two laws passed in 2015.

The first requires doctors to be present when administering pregnancy-ending pills rather than do so via telehealth. Also called telemedicine, the practice allows doctors to consult with patients or review medical records remotely, using a computer or telephone connection. While it’s become a popular method for treating patients, particularly in rural areas, the practice of dispensing abortion-inducing medication is still a new concept.

The second law – sponsored by former House Minority Leader John Rusche, a Democrat from Lewiston – outlined acceptable telemedicine practices in Idaho but included a strict one-line sentence banning doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing drugs through telehealth. The law allows other forms of medical procedures without a doctor’s presence.

Republican lawmakers who voted in favor of the legislation argued that the law better protects women’s health against so-called “webcam abortions,” which are not accessible in Idaho.

Under the agreement, the Idaho Legislature has until the end of the 2017 legislative session to repeal the one-line ban from the state’s telehealth law and repeal the law requiring physicians to be in the same room before a medication abortion.

If not, U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill will declare the laws unconstitutional and unenforceable. Doing so would create possible case precedence for organizations to use in future court cases against telemedicine abortion bans.

“Based on the stipulated facts, and the entire record herein, the Court hereby finds that the challenged laws … provide few, if any, health benefits for women,” Winmill wrote. “And that these benefits, if any, are outweighed by the burden these laws impose on access to abortion.”

House Speaker Scott Bedke was not aware of Winmill’s decision Monday afternoon, but said he could not immediately think of anyone in his caucus who would take the lead on repealing those laws.

A spokesman for Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who signed the two laws in 2015 and was named in Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Currently, 19 states require that abortion-inducing medication must be given in person, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research center that supports abortion rights. Thirty-seven states – counting Idaho – require licensed physicians to be the only ones to give abortion medication.

However, Planned Parenthood won a similar lawsuit in 2015 when the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a restriction that would have prevented doctors from administering medication abortions, saying the rule would have placed an unconstitutional burden on women by requiring a doctor’s physical presence in the room.