Judge Temporarily Blocks Ohio Telemedicine Abortion Ban

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A judge has temporarily blocked an Ohio ban on the use of telemedicine for medication abortions as a suit challenging the law's constitutionality proceeds.

The two-week restraining order was granted by a Hamilton County judge late Tuesday in a case brought last week by Planned Parenthood against the Ohio Department of Health, the state Medical Board and prosecutors in the state’s three largest counties.

It was the second Ohio abortion law Common Pleas Judge Alison Hatheway has blocked this week. She delayed enforcement Monday of another law that would require fetal remains from surgical abortions to be cremated or buried, agreeing with a group of clinics that had sued that a lack of rules made complying unworkable.

The judge's latest decision means the telemedicine abortion ban will not take effect as scheduled on Monday. The court will consider the law's longer-term fate at a hearing April 19.

It marks the fifth Ohio abortion restriction passed by the state's Republican-led Legislature to now be blocked by the courts. The others are bans on dilation and evacuation, or D&E abortions; on abortions in cases where a fetal Down syndrome diagnosis is a factor; and on all abortions after detection of the first fetal heartbeat, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy before many women know they are pregnant.

Ohio Right to Life President Mike Gonidakis said the court’s decision “puts women and babies at risk.”

“No woman deserves to be subjected to the gruesome process of a chemical abortion potentially hours away from the physician who proscribed her the drugs,” he said in a statement. He said women have died undergoing the regimen, although the Ohio Department of Health has recorded no deaths from any type of abortion in many years.

Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, rejected the anti-abortion group’s arguments.

“Bans on the use of telemedicine abortion have nothing to do with safeguarding patients’ health — they only make it harder for patients to access care that’s safe and effective,” she said in a statement. “Across the country state-level politicians are trying to limit access to medication abortion, in clear defiance of science.”

Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed the telemedicine abortion ban in January. It would prohibit administration of mifepristone to medically induce an abortion via a telehealth appointment. Doctors who violated the law would face a fourth-degree felony charge on the first offense and a third-degree felony charge for subsequent violations.

The use of telemedicine rose steeply when the coronavirus pandemic hit. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, telehealth visits increased 154% during the last week of March 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.

Supporters of the law argued that it is important for a doctor to be physically present when women take mifepristone for a chemical abortion to assure safety and to answer questions.

Opponents contended that women seeking abortions are already required to visit a clinic for counseling and for an ultrasound a day ahead of the procedure under current Ohio law. They said taking the abortion medication from home on the second day, while connected online with the a clinician, is safe and permitted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.