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Idaho County Shutters Its Only Obstetric Department, Citing “Political Climate”

“So many [people] are going to suffer in the shadows,” one doctor said.

Bonner General Health, a hospital in Bonner County, Idaho, has discontinued its obstetrics, labor and delivery services, citing the state’s “legal and political climate.”

Bonner Health staffed the county’s only OB-GYNs. County residents will now have to drive at least an hour south to access OB-GYN care.

“To go into labor at home and arrive at the hospital five minutes later was a blessing that I didn’t know was a blessing,” Laura Olin, 32, told NBC News. Olin gave birth to twin boys at Bonner Health in 2020. When she became pregnant again, she had to give birth at a hospital 90 minutes away.

Idaho prohibits abortion at any stage, with very limited exemptions. In August, a district judge held that Idaho’s abortion ban exemptions were so narrow that they violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), a federal law which requires that patients be provided stabilizing care, including abortions, in emergency situations.

“Allowing the criminal abortion ban to take effect, without a cutout for EMTALA-required care, would inject tremendous uncertainty into precisely what care is required (and permitted) for pregnant patients who present in Medicare-funded emergency rooms with emergency medical conditions,” District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said in his ruling. “The clear and intended effect of Idaho’s criminal abortion law is to curb abortion as a form of medical care. This extends to emergency situations, obstructing EMTALA’s purpose.”

However, three Trump-appointed judges to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reversed this finding, ruling that emergency room physicians who perform abortions to stabilize a patient may in fact face criminal prosecution.

“The district court concluded that there is a gap between what a doctor might believe necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman and what might reasonably be expected to place the health of her or her unborn child in serious jeopardy, seriously impair their bodily functions, or cause serious dysfunction to any bodily organ or part,” the ruling states. “… But almost all the examples in the district court’s parade-of-horribles are no longer true…”

Despite the court’s finding that Idaho’s abortion ban does not violate EMTALA, the state is currently facing a lawsuit from multiple women who allege that they were denied abortions during medical emergencies.

“I knew right away that I needed an abortion to save my life and to make sure that I was here and healthy for my family, including my now 2-year-old son,” Jennifer Adkins, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement. “But the fact that I couldn’t get the abortion care I urgently needed in Idaho just added to our misery.”

Adkins was forced to scramble to come up with funds to travel for abortion care after learning that her pregnancy was likely nonviable and that her life was in danger. Her doctors told her that before Roe was overturned, they would have referred her to an abortion clinic, but now, due to Idaho’s abortion ban, they were afraid to refer her to any abortion provider, even one outside of the state.

“Facing the threats of losing their medical licenses, thousands of dollars in fines, and up to five years in prison, it is no wonder that doctors and hospitals in Idaho are turning patients away — even women in medical emergencies like Mrs. Adkins,” the lawsuit explains.

Because of the potential liability hospitals in Idaho face for providing OB-GYN care, many providers have shuttered their services. The four OB-GYNs who previously worked at Bonner Health have left the state.

“Highly respected, talented physicians are leaving. Recruiting replacements will be extraordinarily difficult,” Bonner Health said in a press release announcing its decision to end obstetric services. “In addition, the Idaho Legislature continues to introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care. Consequences for Idaho physicians providing the standard of care may include civil litigation and criminal prosecution, leading to jail time or fines.”

Idaho is currently facing a maternal health crisis because of the effect its abortion ban is having on people’s access to OB-GYN services in the state. Thirteen of Idaho’s 44 counties are maternity care deserts, or counties without a hospital or birth center offering obstetric care and without any obstetric providers. Research has shown that women who lack access to hospitals with obstetrics care are at a higher risk for negative health outcomes, including maternal morbidity and mortality.

“Anti-abortion politicians have already banned abortion in the state of Idaho. And now it’s being taken a step further by taking away people’s ability to access emergency care when they need it the most,” Rebecca Gibron, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, said in a statement on Friday. “We’re dedicated to prioritizing our patients’ health and wellbeing — even if our state won’t. Because beyond the right to have an abortion, people deserve to have their doctors make decisions with their health and wellbeing in mind every time. That shouldn’t be a radical stance.”

In the midst of an upsurge in maternal deaths, however, Idaho disbanded its Maternal Mortality Review Committee (MMRC), making it the only state without a legal requirement or specialized committee to review maternal deaths related to pregnancy.

“A lot of those people for whom it’s going to get harder, they don’t have a lot of power,” Dr. Amelia Huntsberger, who was on the now-disbanded MMRC, told NBC News. “There’s no microphone readily accessible to them, so many of them are going to suffer in the shadows.”

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