The national and state chapters of Planned Parenthood sued the state of Ohio Thursday over a law set to go into effect in mid-April that prohibits abortion services conducted through telemedicine.
The lawsuit regards Senate Bill 260, signed into law in January and banning an available telehealth option for what’s called a medication abortion. In a medication abortion, a two-pill regimen is given to a patient, as opposed to removing a fetus or fetal tissue surgically.
The telemedicine abortion law prohibits physicians from conducting abortions or providing abortion-inducing drugs to a pregnant person without the physical presence of a physician. Violating the law could result in a fourth-degree felony charge for the physician.
Currently, abortion in Ohio is legal up to 22 weeks gestation.
Ohio currently requires at least two visits to a health center before an abortion can take place, once for an ultrasound and discussion with a physician about the procedure, and another at least 24 hours later for the actual abortion.
With medication abortion, the second visit does not have to occur at one of Planned Parenthood’s ambulatory surgical clinics, but can instead happen at one of the health centers that may be closer to the patient, staffed with a nurse practitioner, midwife or advanced practice registered nurse on site, according to the clinics.
“Once at a health center services as a telemedicine medication abortion site, a patient is connected by videoconference with a physician located in Cincinnati, or in East Columbus, or Bedford Heights,” the lawsuit states.
The medicine is ingested “under observation by the physician,” and a health center staff member is present in person.
According to Planned Parenthood, the telehealth option helps, as it does in other medical fields, with medical care that could be limited in certain communities.
“Ohio is one of the most medically underserved states in the country, a problem particularly felt by Black communities, people of color, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in our state,” said Iris Harvey, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, in a statement. “Telemedicine is key tool to address those disparities.”
The suit, filed in Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas because of the Planned Parenthood Southwest Ohio Region listed as a party, claims the law “irrationally prohibits abortion providers from using telemedicine to provide medication abortion to Ohioans.”
“SB 260 carries felony criminal penalties and draconian civil and professional sanctions for abortion providers who violate it,” the suit states.
The suit was filed against the Ohio Department of Health, ODH director Stephanie McCloud, the State Medical Board of Ohio, along with prosecutors of Hamilton County, Franklin County and Cuyahoga County, all of which have Planned Parenthood clinic locations.
The system of clinics is asking the court to prevent local prosecutors and state agencies from enforcing the law because it “blatantly violates the Ohio Constitution’s guarantees of substantive due process, equal protection and free choice in health care,” according to court documents.
The suit even claims abortion access would be cut off completely in Butler, Mahoning and Richland counties, which would go against current Ohio law allowing abortions for pregnancies up to 22 weeks.
The clinics also noted state officials’ praise of telemedicine in other types of medicine. The state has also passed legislation to lessen telemedicine regulations as they were attempting to ban the use of it in abortion services.
Telemedicine has become a hot topic amid the pandemic, as use of the services for everything from primary care to dentistry increased during stay-at-home orders and precaution protocols.
The lawsuit cited the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which called telemedicine “a cost-effective alternative” to traditional medical care.
Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.