- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Utah lawmakers took the first steps Monday to barring doctors from using telemedicine to remotely prescribe abortion-inducing medication, though critics warned similar measures have faced legal challenges in other states.

The restriction is written into a bill that promotes the use of telemedicine, an emerging practice where doctors use images and webcams to consult with patients, typically far away or in rural areas, and remotely treat them.

The Republican-dominated House Public Utilities, Energy, and Technology Standing Committee passed the bill Monday afternoon, sending it to the full House for a debate. The proposal is likely to pass Utah’s Legislature, where the GOP has a supermajority and many of its members oppose abortion rights.

Democratic lawmakers and other critics said the proposal would hurt rural women’s access to abortions and singles out abortion as the only medical procedure for which doctors would not be able to remotely prescribe medication.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said abortion is different because it deals with the life of a mother and child.

“If you’re going to have an abortion, you have to see a doctor,” Ivory told lawmakers. “You’re not going to have an abortion by email or by remote technology.”

The bill makes exceptions for an abortion in cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother would be endangered without an abortion.

Idaho lawmakers passed two similar laws in 2015, but the state agreed to repeal them by the end of this year to settle a lawsuit with the local Planned Parenthood chapter.

If lawmakers repeal the laws, a federal judge said he would declare them unconstitutional because they provide few, if any health benefits to women and they close off access to abortion.

Planned Parenthood won a similar lawsuit in two years ago when the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a law that would have barred doctors from administering abortion-inducing pills remotely via video teleconferencing.

If the measure is passed in Utah, the state would join 19 others that require that a doctor prescribing a medication to induce abortion be physically present for the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Patrice Arent, the only woman on the 11-member Utah committee on Monday, unsuccessfully tried to get the abortion provisions removed and questioned why the bill was being considered by a committee that mainly deals with technology instead of a health care committee.

Holly Bullock, a University of Utah obstetrician/gynecologist, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah both spoke against the bill, saying it would hurt rural women’s access to abortion and force them to drive longer distances to urban areas where the state’s few abortion clinics are located.

Both Bullock and the ACLU said they did not know if any Utah abortion providers currently dispense abortion medication remotely.

The Planned Parenthood Association of Utah does not have a telemedicine system to offer abortions but supports it as an option for women, said spokeswoman Katrina Barker.

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Follow Michelle L. Price at https://twitter.com/michellelprice

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