Abortion laws in Idaho partially force hospitals to close obstetrics

A rural hospital in northern Idaho will stop delivering or providing other obstetric care, citing a changing legal climate in which recent state laws could, among other things, hold doctors accountable for performing abortions.

Bonner General Health in Sandpoint will stop providing midwifery services in mid-May. In his decision, he also cited a decrease in the number of births and the loss of doctors, among other factors.

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Pregnant women in a city of about 9,000 people – with an average annual snowfall of about 60 inches (150 centimeters) – will likely have to travel about 45 miles (70 kilometers) to Coeur d’Alene for treatment or to hospitals further away. Idaho, Washington and Montana.

The decision to end obstetric services was emotional and difficult, hospital staff said in a press release.

“We have made every effort to avoid discontinuation of these services,” Ford Elsesser, president of the board of Bonner General Health, said in a press release. “We hoped to be the exception, but now our problems are impossible to overcome.”

The number of births has been declining for many years, with 265 births recorded at the hospital in 2022, the statement said. Birth rates are also declining across the country, with older people moving to the Sandpoint area, officials said.

Hospital officials said Idaho’s legal and political climate was partly to blame.

After the United States Supreme Court overturned constitutional protections for abortion last year, the state of Idaho has banned nearly all abortions in a move that puts doctors on trial for any abortion, even if necessary to protect the health of the pregnant patient.

“The Idaho legislature continues to introduce and pass bills criminalizing physicians for providing medical care that is nationally recognized as the standard of care,” the hospital said in a statement. “Consequences for Idaho doctors providing standard care could include civil lawsuits and criminal prosecutions, leading to jail time or fines.”

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Doctors could face felony charges and revocation of their medical license for violating a law that the Idaho Supreme Court ruled constitutional earlier this year. A federal judge stopped Idaho from enforcing a ban on emergency medical care at Medicare-funded facilities.

Highly respected and talented doctors are leaving, according to Bonner hospital officials, who said it would be extremely difficult to find a replacement.

Dr. Amelia Huntsberger, an ob/gyn at Bonner General Hospital, moved to Sandpoint in 2012 to work in the area, according to a lawsuit filed last year in support of efforts to end the abortion ban.

She told Idaho Capital Sun in Boise via email that she would be leaving the hospital and the state due to abortion laws and the Idaho Legislature’s decision to terminate the state’s maternal death review committee.

“In particular, it is dangerous for rural patients to delay medical care until we can say that an abortion is necessary to prevent death,” she said in her statement of claim to the court. “Patients will suffer pain, complications, and may die if doctors abide by Idaho law as written.”

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The Associated Press was unable to contact Huntsberger for comment, and messages left for her by a hospital representative were not returned.

Leandra Wright told KREM-TV that after giving birth at Bonner General Health in 2020, she was looking forward to having her son there in August.

Wright, who lives in the nearby town of Sagla, said she learned of the hospital’s decision from a Facebook post.

“It’s unnerving and stressful, and my stomach just shrinks,” Wright said. “Now I need to recover elsewhere and I need to travel to have my baby.”

Kootenai Health officials in Coeur d’Alene said in a Facebook post that anyone giving birth at Bonner General Health can go to the Kootenai Health Family Birth Center, where about 2,200 babies are born each year.

“The leadership of both hospitals is working together to identify any barriers to care for patients affected by this closure and create solutions to ensure quality births,” the statement said.

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