The impact of abortion bans on Idaho residents and healthcare

Photo by Taya Power-Thornton

Since Roe v. Wade was overturned in 2022, Idaho has instated abortion bans that are among the strictest in the nation. Abortions became criminalized when the state’s trigger ban went into effect. Trigger bans are laws that were drafted before Roe was overturned, “intended to ban abortion entirely if the Supreme Court limited or overturned Roe or if a federal Constitutional amendment prohibited abortion” according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Idaho’s abortion laws

Idaho’s laws effectively ban all abortions at any stage of pregnancy. Exceptions only exist in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, and the state even proposed to eliminate the exemptions of rape and incest from state law with Senate Bill 1129 on Jan. 15.

This strict abortion ban in Idaho is not just affecting pregnant people actively seeking abortions. Jen Quintano with the Pro-Voice Project, a group in northern Idaho dedicated to raising awareness about and advocating for abortion rights, discussed why the ban is so deeply impactful to communities across the state. She shared that when healthcare is not only denied to patients in need but is criminalized, the entire healthcare field suffers.

“With these laws, the intent was to address people who are seeking abortion care,” Quintano said. “In actuality, when you take one piece of the healthcare, when you remove one piece of that tower, the whole tower is going to crumble. So this isn’t just affecting people seeking abortions. And now it isn’t just affecting people who are pregnant. It is affecting all people here who need reproductive health care. We’ve lost access.”

Idaho’s Defense of Life Act is one example of how Idaho’s abortion policies can be a danger to those seeking basic healthcare. The Defense of Life Act makes it a crime to perform an abortion, even when the mother’s health is greatly endangered, with the only exception being if the abortion is absolutely necessary to prevent the death of the pregnant woman. 

The policy places Idaho residents in a dangerous position where there is no guarantee that they will receive help from healthcare professionals unless it is proven a patient will die without an abortion. Healthcare professionals can face a lawsuit and lose their medical license for performing the abortion.

Regardless of conflicting views of abortion, Idaho residents have largely expressed the necessity of reproductive healthcare options. According to Planned Parenthood, “65% believe it is important that women in Idaho have access to all of the reproductive health care options available, including abortion. Across party, 95% of Democrats, 66% of Independents, and 49% of Republicans believe it is important.”

Kimra Luna from Idaho Abortion Rights discussed how she has seen Idaho residents respond to the Defense of Life Act.

“People are really scared to even be pregnant in the state of Idaho because they don’t know if there’s an emergency if they’ll be able to get care,” said Luna. “You basically can’t get care unless you are seconds away from death. They’ll tell people, ‘Nope, sorry, you just have to wait.’

Wait to die? Wait to bleed out? Wait for what? And that’s absolutely mortifying.”

Sen. Dan Foreman proposed Senate Bill 1229 earlier this year, which would have eliminated the abortion ban exemptions in the case of rape and incest. While the bill did not pass, protection for victims of rape and incest is limited in Idaho, according to Representative Ilana Rubel.

“There is practically speaking no rape or incest exception in Idaho’s law right now,” Rubel said. “I’m not aware of any woman in the state who has successfully been able … to get an abortion for rape and incest. No police department has set up the procedures by which you could apply for it. No doctor is willing to put themselves on a list as somebody you could go to because they still face a $20,000 lawsuit. While there’s nominally an incest exception on the law currently, it’s essentially non-existent.”

The impacts on the healthcare system

The strict abortion bans in Idaho have led to fear in the medical field that results in many people being unable to access the care they need. Since doctors face the possibility of high fines, loss of their license or even jail time, they feel unsafe providing the care that they were trained to offer their communities.

“Since these laws went on the books, we have seen an absolute exodus of healthcare professionals,” Rubel said. “We’ve lost 55% of the state’s fetal maternal medicine specialists who are the doctors that deal with high-risk pregnancies. We’ve seen two hospitals shut down maternity services. We have nearly three-quarters of the OBGYNs in the state are looking to either retire early or leave the state.”

Rubel continued to discuss how this has impacted those in need of medical care.

“It has absolutely gutted our medical infrastructure, because doctors don’t want to practice in a place where they face years in prison or there’s a permanent loss of their license for providing the care that they were trained to provide,” Rubel said. “There’s no health exception in Idaho’s laws, so unless the doctor can prove that the woman faces certain death, the doctor faces prison time for providing a medically necessary abortion. And, of course, that loss of medical expertise hits everybody, far beyond just women seeking abortions.”

National implications

With some of the strictest bans in the country, Idaho has become an example for other states for the impacts of strict abortion bans. Quintano outlined the implications Idaho’s laws might have on the national conversation and legal framework, particularly considering the shifting landscape of abortion rights at the federal level. 

“If we continue to see things like this proliferate, whether it is abortion travel bans or fetal personhood, I think that does expand the realm of the possibility of what could happen at a federal level,” Quintano said. “If it’s seen that this kind of legislation is successful in places around the country, and Idaho is ground zero for where those start, then I think that could have a direct impact on what we might see come out at a federal level.”

Rubel echoed this, discussing how Idaho has become an example for other states.

“We are a state where women are having to be airlifted out of the state when they have emergencies during their pregnancy, and the exodus of doctors is putting us on the front pages of newspapers around the nation,” Rubel said. “I think it’s sending a message to people in other states that this is where you could end up if the vote of the electorate doesn’t get engaged.”

Idaho’s strict abortion laws serve not only as a representation of the state’s stance on reproductive rights but also as a frontrunner for the national dialogue on abortion bans. The outcomes observed in Idaho, from healthcare challenges to legal precedent, emphasize the implications such laws could have across the nation.

Quintano discussed the power that every individual has to take action and make change in their community.

“I want people to understand that they have a lot of room to speak up about this,” Quintano said. “They have a lot of room to share their stories and be heard and be understood and have people empathize with them. There’s a lot of room to have these conversations and build confidence in them and to see that we’re not alone in our desire to have access to abortion and reproductive health care. There are so many of us in this state who feel the same way. We’re just afraid to put our hands up and acknowledge that that’s how we feel.”

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