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More Than 50 Obstetricians Have Fled Idaho Since Abortion Ban Was Implemented

The reduction in available doctors and obstetric programs will likely increase maternal mortality rates in the state.

Idaho has lost 22 percent of its practicing obstetricians in the 15 months since the state’s near-complete ban on abortion was implemented, a new study finds.

The research, conducted by the Idaho Physician Well-Being Action Collaborative (IPWAC), reveals that over 50 obstetricians in Idaho have left the state since August 2022, meaning that only an estimated 210 obstetricians are available to serve more than 962,000 women in the state.

“In a time when we should be building our physician workforce to meet the needs of a growing Idaho population and address increasing risks of pregnancy and childbirth, Idaho laws that criminalize the private decisions between doctor and patient have plunged our state into a care crisis that unchecked will affect generations of Idaho families to come,” Dr. Caitlin Gustafson, an OB-GYN and the board president of the Idaho Coalition for Safe Healthcare Foundation, said in a press release.

Idaho has one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the country. Not only does the state prohibit abortion at all stages of pregnancy, right-wing lawmakers have also introduced a bill in the legislature that would remove existing rape and incest exceptions.

The U.S. Supreme Court also recently upheld the state’s law allowing for the criminalization of doctors who provide abortions. Furthermore, despite the violation of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which should prohibit the denial of emergency abortions even in states where abortion care is criminalized, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that emergency room physicians in Idaho are no longer shielded from prosecution under the state’s abortion ban. Doctors who are prosecuted could receive a prison sentence ranging from two to five years and may also have their medical licenses revoked or suspended.

This fear of prosecution has prompted doctors to flee the state to practice elsewhere — in fact, 55 percent of high-risk obstetricians, or maternal fetal medicine doctors who work with high risk pregnancies, have left the state since the abortion ban was put into place. Additionally, two hospitals have closed their OB-GYN programs entirely within the past 15 months, and one more obstetrician program is scheduled to close in April. One of the hospitals, Bonner General Health, shuttered its clinic in October 2023, citing the state’s “legal and political climate.”

“I support my colleagues who are leaving Idaho,” Penny Beach, a family medicine physician in Idaho, told Rewire News Group in December. “It’s very difficult to practice in a state when all of a sudden what you provided yesterday as routine, good, standard-of-care medicine today will get you thrown in jail for five years and your medical license revoked.”

IPWAC emphasizes in their report that the reduction in available doctors and OB programs will likely increase the risk of maternal mortality. “CMS data has Idaho at the 10th percentile of maternal pregnancy outcomes,” the report says. “This means that 90 percent of the United States has better maternal pregnancy outcomes than Idaho.” In 2023, Idaho disbanded its maternal mortality review committee, making it the only state to not track or report on maternal outcomes. In addition to increased rates of maternal mortality, states that restrict or ban abortion have also been found to suffer from increased infant mortality, premature births and intimate partner homicide.

“It does not feel good to be labeled a felon. It does not feel good to be told that you are the problem, that you should not be afraid to do medically necessary abortions regardless of the fact that doing so could cause you to lose your career, your freedom, and your income,” Beach said. “It does not feel good to study for years and then be told that no one cares about the nuances of your medical knowledge. And most of all, it does not feel good to see your patients suffer needlessly.”

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