Senate GOP extends abortion prescription restriction

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
The Michigan Capitol

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate approved legislation Thursday that would permanently ban doctors from prescribing abortion medication over an internet web camera or streaming video service.

The upper chamber voted 24-12 to extend a "telemedicine" ban enacted as part of a 2012 GOP abortion law that was set to expire at the end of the year.

The law requires women to physically visit a doctor to obtain prescription pills to induce an abortion, which supporters say is a safety measure for medication that can have side effects.

But critics argued the law is designed to limit access to legal abortions, particularly for women who live in rural areas without a doctor nearby and who increasingly rely on internet exams.

“Telemedicine works,” said Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor. “The bill before us forces Michigan backwards, plain and simple. The motivation here is purely ideological, not medical, and quite frankly it's unconstitutional.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration restricts access to so-called abortion pills because of possible side effects, said Genevieve Marnon, legislative director for the anti-abortion Right to Life of Michigan. The federal agency prohibits women from filling a prescription for mifepristone at a retail pharmacy as part of a “risk evaluation and mitigation strategy.”

“It is banned, but in other states, the bans have been challenged, and that’s why we want to keep this ban in place,” Marnon told lawmakers Wednesday in the Senate Health Committee.

But Warren noted that the American Medical Association recently adopted a resolution urging the FDA to lift the abortion pill restrictions. “There’s overwhelming evidence that they are not high-risk medications,” she said.

Nineteen other states have telemedicine abortion bans, according to Right to Life of Michigan. Marnon called the 2012 state law a “pre-emptive” move. The law was set to expire Dec. 31. Pro-choice Democratic Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer is set to take office Jan. 1.

“We had over 26,000 abortions in the state of Michigan last year, and 35 percent of those were done with the medical abortion, which is a two-pill regimen,” Marnon said.

Groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan oppose the legislation, arguing it would require women in rural areas to drive substantial distances to access abortion services.

There is no obstetrician-gynecologist in nearly one third of the state’s 83 counties, according to the ACLU, whose national affiliate has challenged prescription restrictions in other states.

Sen. Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights was the only Republican to vote against the measure, joining all 11 Democrats in opposition. The bill now heads to the state House for further consideration.