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BAD MEDICINE: The open drawer of a telemedicine terminal in Des Moines, Iowa, from which Planned Parenthood of the Heartland doctors can remotely prescribe the abortion-inducing drug RU-486.
Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Neibergall
BAD MEDICINE: The open drawer of a telemedicine terminal in Des Moines, Iowa, from which Planned Parenthood of the Heartland doctors can remotely prescribe the abortion-inducing drug RU-486.

Death by webcam

Roe v. Wade | After Planned Parenthood quietly began prescribing abortions over webcams, a former employee blew the whistle and rallied the pro-life cause

Issue: "Roe v. Wade turns 40," Jan. 26, 2013

In a rural Iowa community, a young woman sits in an examination room, lips pressed together. She’s just received a urine pregnancy test and a vaginal ultrasound. Now her doctor asks: How confident do you feel about your decision today? Very, she answers. Any questions? No, she answers.

With a “pop,” a drawer next to the woman unlocks. It slides open to reveal two bottles of pills: mifepristone and misoprostol. The prescription is simple. Take the first drug to kill the baby, the second to expel it.

The drugs, sometimes collectively called RU-486 after the first pill in the series, are a familiar combination in abortion centers throughout the United States. Iowa abortionists are leveraging technology to make the pills even more accessible to women in rural areas. In the above scenario, the “doctor” and “patient” weren’t in the same room, or even the same town: The doctor was 200 miles away in Des Moines, talking to the patient through a webcam and unlocking the drawer from his computer.

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Hundreds of U.S. hospitals and clinics are experimenting with “telemedicine,” where doctors often prescribe medication or conduct exams by internet video conference. The island hospital on Nantucket, Mass., for example, saves $29,000 a year outsourcing dermatology exams with cameras and video monitors.

Iowa law allows only a physician to prescribe abortion drugs. By using telemedicine, Des Moines-based Planned Parenthood of the Heartland saves thousands of dollars in travel expenses it would otherwise spend sending a doctor to each of its 16 Iowa locations currently providing abortions. Besides being deadly for first-trimester babies, Iowa’s telemed abortions are dangerous for women: RU-486 is prone to unforeseen complications, and Planned Parenthood typically has no doctors or emergency workers at its rural centers. The company also prescribes RU-486 “off label,” flouting Food and Drug Administration recommendations. In view of these dangers, pro-life lawmakers in Iowa and other states are working to ban webcam abortions before they spread across the nation.

No person in the pro-life movement knows more about webcam abortions than Sue Thayer, the former manager of a Planned Parenthood center in Storm Lake, Iowa. Along with other center managers in mid-2007, Thayer attended the original staff meeting where Planned Parenthood of the Heartland CEO Jill June announced her plan of prescribing medical abortions by webcam (June had gotten the idea after seeing a telemedicine procedure on a TV drama).

“We were sworn to secrecy,” says Thayer. Planned Parenthood executives told the gathered managers they wanted to do 500 to 1,000 telemed abortions before anybody knew about the procedure—a way of establishing a standardized practice before anyone raised legal or medical quibbles. “We weren’t even supposed to tell our own staff members at our own clinic, until it was time for our clinic to start doing them.”

The Storm Lake Planned Parenthood had never provided abortions. Thayer personally believed they were wrong. From the time she began managing the center in 1991, she felt her mission was to reduce the need for abortions by providing family planning resources. Now, rural centers like hers are supposed to provide medical abortions by webcam, without a doctor on hand, and Thayer—who is not a nurse—had to perform vaginal ultrasounds.

She balked. Since women who use RU-486 sometimes end up in local emergency rooms to treat excessive bleeding, Thayer asked Planned Parenthood administrators whether they would notify local doctors about the telemed initiative: “They said, ‘No, absolutely not.’”

For Thayer, the meeting played a key role in opening her eyes to her employer’s true goals. As Planned Parenthood began rolling out the webcam procedure to its Iowa centers in the ensuing months, Thayer, in the midst of a spiritual awakening, wondered what she would do when they came to Storm Lake.

Her superiors offered a simple answer: They fired Thayer in December 2008, claiming they were downsizing. They offered her several months’ salary if she would sign a statement agreeing not to talk publicly about Planned Parenthood’s practices.

Thayer didn’t sign. Although it was two years before she gained the courage to speak out about Iowa’s webcam abortions, her warnings have ultimately encouraged both state and federal lawmakers to push preemptive bans on webcam abortions.

“The Lord is working through Sue Thayer,” says U.S. Rep. Steve King, whose Iowa district includes Storm Lake. “I’m awfully glad to know she’s my neighbor.” King has introduced legislation that would outlaw federal funding for webcam abortions, and told me he’d like to ban the procedure outright, assuming he can get the needed support in the House and Senate. 

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