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OPINION: Survey results on doctors leaving the state due to abortion laws

by McKAY CUNNINGHAM/Guest Opinion
| April 7, 2023 1:00 AM

Not six months after Roe v. Wade was overruled, and only a few weeks after Idaho’s abortion laws became effective, I was scheduled to teach a course entitled Reproductive Rights in the U.S. I have taught constitutional law for many years, but I was nervous about teaching this particular course, covering a controversial topic at a momentous time.

I was wrong to worry. The students quickly calmed anxiety by professionally tackling the controversial topic. They listened to their peers and offered respectful critiques. It also helped that the course turned on the legality of abortion. In other words, we studied the Constitution and Supreme Court cases, rather than moral, religious, or sociological perspectives on abortion.

The journey from anxiety to confidence in teaching abortion law inspired the article you are now reading. Despite polarization in public discourse around abortion, perhaps we can just look at the law or just look at the data and make our own informed decisions.

Take a look at the results of a recent survey. Draw whatever conclusions you want. The survey reflects doctors who work in maternal health care and who are leaving Idaho. It was conducted by Dr. Lauren Miller, who practices Maternal Fetal Medicine and leads the Idaho Coalition for Safe Reproductive Health Care. The response rate to the survey was robust and statistically sound.

The survey asks how Idaho’s abortion laws affect Idaho’s maternal healthcare doctors, and specifically whether these laws are causing doctors to leave the state. The survey, in essence, predicts the availability of maternal healthcare services across Idaho in coming years. Here are the questions and the answers; make your own judgement.

1) Are you considering relocating out-of-state in the next year?

• Yes: 48

• No: 42

• Maybe: 27

2) Are Idaho’s Restrictive Abortion laws contributing to your consideration of leaving medical practice in Idaho?

• Yes: 73

• No, other reasons: 2

• Other: 0

The survey is not just an academic exercise. Idaho made national news a week ago when a North Idaho hospital reluctantly announced that it will no longer offer pregnancy services, in part, because of Idaho laws that criminalize abortion care. Bonner General Health in Sandpoint will stop offering labor and delivery services in May. Here’s the quote: “The Idaho legislature continues to introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care.”

Of course, this affects women who want to have children more than those seeking abortions. The number of women seeking medical services for live birth far exceeds the number seeking abortion services, and Idaho already ranks well below average in Maternal-Fetal Medicine Respondents (MFMs). MFMs are the medical professionals that, among other things, facilitate safe childbirth. Idaho currently has 3.7 MFMs per 10,000 births. In neighboring Washington, its 6.4 and in Utah, its 6.5. Accounting for the two Idaho MFMs who recently accepted jobs out of state, Idaho will soon drop to 2.7 MFMs per 10,000 births.

This survey offers no commentary on the morality of abortion. It does, however, demonstrate that Idaho’s maternal health care doctors are leaving, or soon will.

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McKay Cunningham currently directs on-campus experiential learning at the College of Idaho, where he also teaches Reproductive Rights and Constitutional Law. Prior to joining the College of Idaho, McKay was a law professor at Concordia Law School and then the University of Idaho.