Change is needed in Idaho’s abortion laws before it is too late

Criminalizing medical care is having a dramatic impact on recruitment and retention of physicians who care for pregnant women, writes guest columnist Dr. John Werdel.

March 7, 2023 4:00 am
U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Roe V. Wade

People protest in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, in Washington, D.C. The court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health overturned the landmark 50-year-old Roe v. Wade case and erases a federal right to an abortion. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

To those who witnessed the fall of Roe v. Wade and the implementation of Idaho’s total abortion ban, the medical community accepts that broad access to abortion is no longer an option in Idaho. What most do not realize is the dramatic impact criminalizing medical care is having on recruitment and retention of physicians who care for Idaho’s pregnant women. We need residents and legislators to fully understand and appreciate what is at stake.

As the medical director of women’s health care at St. Luke’s Health System, I am witnessing first-hand the impact of these laws on all physicians who give advice and care to pregnant women. These providers are terrified and constantly second-guessing their decisions. Not because of the restrictions on broad access to abortion, but because they can no longer safely manage and advise their patients who have pregnancy complications.

Complicated pregnancies are not rare; the average is 30 per week for the St. Luke’s Health System alone. These complications may require the termination of the pregnancy to protect the health of the mother or end a fatal fetal defect. But physicians dealing with these complications could be facing felony charges from such care and have no choice but to defend these medical decisions in court. What reasonable physician wants to take that chance? Many are deciding it is not worth the risk. 

A recent survey shows that more than 45% of OBGYN physicians are currently considering or exploring relocation out of Idaho. In the last six months, three of the maternal fetal medicine physicians (high risk pregnancy specialists) in our state have decided to leave Idaho.

I came to provide care for complicated pregnancies; I’m leaving because of Idaho’s abortion bans

Family medicine and generalist OBGYN physicians, who manage the vast majority of pregnant patients in our state, are also signaling a desire to limit their practice, retire early or leave Idaho. Recruitment of new physicians to Idaho has been virtually impossible since late summer 2022, which should be setting off alarm bells throughout Idaho. Again, it is NOT the restrictions on “elective” abortion that are driving this unfolding nightmare. Physicians do not want to practice in Idaho; they do not want to live and raise a family in a state that criminalizes care that is both medically appropriate and necessary.

It is not too late. Legislators in this session could make simple changes in the laws and allow for appropriate and medically necessary exceptions in the cases of terminations. This would allow the doctor and the patient to make these often heart-wrenching decisions, without the fear of prosecution hanging over their heads.

Obstetrical care is complex, and a nuanced approach is required. If we do not rewrite these laws during this legislative session, we will lose more physicians. Recruitment will remain difficult if not impossible. This will lead to provider shortages, increased access issues, substandard and unsafe care. 


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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.