Abortion laws require revision to protect the health of Idaho residents

The Legislature and medical community should work together to rewrite state laws to protect the health of Idaho residents, writes guest columnist Dr. John Werdel.

August 23, 2022 10:50 am
physician holds hand of patient

A doctor holds the hands of a patient. (Getty Images)

I have been fortunate to serve our community as an obstetrician/gynecologist since 1991 and have cared for more than 6,000 women during my career in the Treasure Valley.

During various points, I have worked at both Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke’s and currently serve as the medical director of women’s services for the St. Luke’s Health System. During my 31 years, I have seen the gamut of pregnancy related complications and the devastating emotional impact of their diagnosis and treatment.

I love the practice of medicine and care deeply about my patients. While I have never performed terminations as a form of birth control, I have participated in numerous procedures or treatments that have required termination of a pregnancy, as vaguely defined in the current abortion-related laws.

These include all the common bread and butter pregnancy issues that many of your families or friends have experienced, including miscarriage, non-viable pregnancy – many in unknown location, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, previable premature rupture of membranes and a myriad of fetal anomalies incompatible with life. Many require immediate termination of the pregnancy even when death of the mother is not imminent – especially ectopic and molar pregnancies along with a number of rarer cancer and medical diagnoses.

To be clear, cases such as these are being cared for at every hospital in our state today. The laws are vague, overly restrictive and place our medical providers in a no-win position between preventing irreparable harm or maternal death and avoiding criminal or civil penalties for providing what is considered the standard of care.

Treatment delays secondary to these laws can and will result in harm.  

I am also worried about my colleagues, including providers in OBGYN, family medicine, emergency medicine and anesthesia along with the nurses, pharmacists, clinical and OR personnel who are on the front lines caring for these patients in our clinics, urgent cares and hospitals. While all understand the risk of medical malpractice, none have experienced the risk of criminal or civil liability for simply providing good faith medical care.

In my current role, I have heard from dozens of my colleagues and participated in multiple meetings where providers and staff have shared tears and are genuinely frightened to provide what was previously routine medical care. Unfortunately, their fears are justified, as there is considerable lack of clarity within these laws – and specifically the trigger law, where there are no exceptions – only affirmative defenses (meaning you committed the crime – you just have a justification for your actions).

Many are considering relocation to another state. Shortages of providers and clinical staff will almost assuredly intensify under the current laws. 

If not stayed, Idaho’s total abortion ban will go into effect on Aug. 25.

I implore the judiciary to envision the bind that providers and hospitals will find themselves in and pause enforcement of the total abortion ban. As noted previously by the Idaho Coalition for Safe Reproductive Health Care – mothers, daughters, relatives, friends and colleagues and all the men and women in our state are depending on us – the lawmakers, and the medical community, to get this right.

This is important enough that everyone should be engaged in this discussion. The Legislature and medical community should work together to rewrite both laws to protect the health of our Idaho residents.

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John Werdel
John Werdel

Dr. John Werdel has practiced OBGYN health care in Boise, Idaho, for 31 years and is the medical director for women's services at Saint Luke's Health System. He has served as chairman of the Ada County Medical Society and chairman of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists representing Idaho physicians.