As doctors flee state, Idaho bill expands exceptions for abortion. Health isn’t one of them

Tribune Content Agency

BOISE, Idaho — In an effort to address complaints about an exodus of Idaho physicians, who fear felony charges for providing pregnancy care, an Idaho bill would add exceptions to the state’s abortion ban. But pregnancies that cause health risks isn’t one of them.

House Bill 374, which lawmakers cleared Thursday, would clarify that medical treatment for miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies are allowable under the state’s abortion ban. An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilized egg grows outside of the uterus, making the pregnancy non-viable.

The bill also would allow exceptions to felony “criminal abortion” when an abortion saves the life of the mother or if the pregnancy was the result of incest or rape. The exception applies only if the incest or rape was reported to police. Currently, the law grants affirmative defenses — opportunities to present evidence in court that negate charges — in those instances.

Additionally, exceptions for rape and incest would be narrowed to only apply in the first trimester of pregnancy.

“The purpose of the legislation is to provide additional clarity,” GOP House Majority Leader Megan Blanksma, who co-sponsored the legislation, told the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday. “It is tangible language that’s within this bill, things that people can focus on and things that people can understand.”

House Democrats protested a vote on the bill over the lack of exception for the health of the pregnant patient. They argued the bill is not a real fix because the clarifications already are law. The Idaho Supreme Court last year ruled that the abortion ban does not apply to ectopic and other non-viable pregnancies.

“If this is supposedly the fix, then the women of Idaho are in real trouble,” House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, a Democrat, said during a Wednesday debate. “I don’t want to be a part of a charade that fixes nothing.”

Representatives of the medical community reluctantly supported the bill, although they also hoped for a health exception.

The bill heads to the governor.

Idaho Republicans banned abortion in 2020. The law wasn’t triggered until the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn long-standing federal protection for the right to obtain an abortion.

Since the Idaho Supreme Court upheld the state’s abortion ban in August, Idaho doctors have been fearful of providing treatment to pregnant patients, said Dr. John Werdel, medical director of women’s health care services at St. Luke’s Health System.

Every week, dozens of St. Luke’s patients with wanted pregnancies have complications that may require abortions “for a myriad of reasons,” Werdel told the House committee. Meanwhile, the health system has struggled to recruit and retain doctors specializing in pregnancy treatment amid threat of prosecution, he said.

A doctor can face up to five years in prison for providing an illegal abortion.

“Physicians second-guess their decisions, but they ultimately have to make a diagnosis and provide treatment, which they believe, really, is in the best interest of the patient,” Werdel said. “But they’re left wondering whether they could be prosecuted.”

Werdel told lawmakers he could muster only “lukewarm” support for House Bill 374. The clarifications on miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies as well as adding explicit exceptions represent “a small step forward to provide safe care,” he said.

Bonner General Health in Sandpoint last week announced it would stop delivering babies, in part, because treating complicated pregnancies opened up doctors to prosecution under Idaho’s abortion ban.

A news release from Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates said the bill “masquerades as expanding exemptions” while narrowing the window for rape and incest exceptions.

“The truth is that this bill being brought forward is a direct result of the sloppy, ill-informed lawmaking done by this body just a few years prior,” Mistie DelliCarpini-Tolman, Idaho director for the group, said in the release. “At the expense of the health and safety of Idahoans, it’s clear that lawmakers are incapable of listening to anything other than the sound of their own self-righteousness and pats on each other’s backs.”

The Idaho Medical Association in recent months negotiated with lawmakers and Idaho Chooses Life, an anti-abortion group that authored the abortion ban, to make exceptions clearer.

The physician group “reluctantly” supported House Bill 374, although it hoped for an exception for the health of the mother, said Ken McClure, a lobbyist representing the nonprofit trade group.

“There is more good that we would like to see done,” McClure told the House State Affairs Committee. “And it’s, in our view, a disappointment that this bill does not do that.”

Republicans on the committee rejected additional language clarifying that abortions as treatment for “life-threatening conditions” are exempt. GOP Rep. Julianne Young told the committee Wednesday that the language was too broad.

“The list was endless when we began considering the decisions that would fall under that language,” she said.

David Ripley, executive director of Idaho Chooses Life, told The Idaho Statesman that the stakeholders ran out of time before they could agree on the language.

“If we were going to do anything to respond to the medical community’s concerns, we had to just set it aside,” Ripley said. “The decisions made by the Idaho Legislature have real world impact almost immediately. So there’s a lot of due diligence that is now required that wasn’t true in the past, before Roe was overturned.”