Idaho Hospital Makes “Difficult Decision” To Stop Delivering Babies
Bonner General Health in Sandpoint, Idaho will no longer deliver babies after May, citing loss of workforce and Idaho's abortion laws.
Deciding where you’re going to deliver your baby is a big decision for parents-to-be, but for pregnant people in Sandpoint, Idaho, the decision just got even harder. In a press release, Bonner General Health’s Board of Directors and Senior Leadership team announced their “emotional and difficult decision” to discontinue providing obstetrical services. Among the reasons for this choice, “Idaho’s legal and political climate” in regard to maternal care in the face of the state’s strict and sometimes vague abortion laws.
Bonner General also listed the loss of pediatric staff — and therefore its ability to adequately care for newborns — and a declining need for obstetric services in the town of 9,000 as prompting its decision. For those who do need such care, however, the next nearest hospital, the Idaho Statesman reports, is nearly 50 miles away. In theory, the hospital could redouble efforts on attracting new talent, but specifically cites the state’s legislative priorities as making it “extraordinarily difficult” to attract new talent to serve the community.
“Highly respected, talented physicians are leaving,” the hospital’s statement reads. “The Idaho Legislature continues to introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care. Consequences for Idaho Physicians providing the standard of care may include civil litigation and criminal prosecution, leading to jail time or fines.”
While Bonner hopes existing patients will be able to deliver at the hospital through May 19 (the press release uses the language “making all attempts to continue deliveries ... however, our ability to provide service is dependent on staffing”), they are no longer taking new patients.
The Washington Post reports that the closure of Bonner’s labor and delivery department represents a national trend — rural hospitals’ maternity wards are closing at a troubling rate. More than half of rural counties, which serve more than 2 million women of childbearing age, are now “maternity-care deserts.”
Last summer, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld an almost complete ban on abortion that passed in 2020. The law criminalizes abortion care in almost all cases, with exceptions for rape (if the person has reported the offense to law enforcement) or to save the life of the pregnant person. Medical providers face felony charges, prison time, and suspension or revocation of their medical license if they run afoul of the law. This last point is complicated by the fact that, abortion rights advocates argue, the wording of the law lacks clarity in particular instances. Alan Schoenfeld, an attorney for Planned Parenthood argued that the law was “unconstitutionally vague,” forcing providers to guess at whether what they were doing was legally defensible. “The affirmative defenses are only available if the provider can demonstrate to the satisfaction of a jury ... that the abortion was ‘necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman.’ There’s no guidance as to the eminence or temporality of that necessity, and the indeterminacy about how much risk qualifies as necessary is vague: a provider cannot make that determination. It is medically impossible.”
The Idaho Republican Party, which holds a commanding majority in Idaho state politics, would go further than even the current law. In their latest platform, released in July 2022, weeks before the court ruling upholding the strict law, the GOP stated “abortion is murder from the moment of fertilization ... regardless of the circumstances of conception, including persons conceived in rape and incest... we oppose all abortion.”
Speaking to the Bonner County Daily Bee, Dr. Deb Owen, who practiced at Bonner General Health from 2001 to 2011 lamented the difficulties facing obstetricians in this legal context. “Should I commit malpractice? Or should I commit a felony? I don't know which one I should do,” she said. “So in order to get out from under that, people are leaving the state.” She also recounts conversations with people who supported this law but are horrified by what they consider unforeseen consequences, saying they didn’t intend for the statute to prevent someone from getting lifesaving healthcare, to which Owen replies. “Well, yeah, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”