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Abortion bans drive off doctors and close clinics, putting other health care at risk

Dr. Franz Theard performs a sonogram on a patient seeking abortion services at the Women's Reproductive Clinic in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, a state that has not banned abortions.
Robyn Beck
/
AFP via Getty Images
Dr. Franz Theard performs a sonogram on a patient seeking abortion services at the Women's Reproductive Clinic in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, a state that has not banned abortions.

The rush in conservative states to ban abortion after the overturn of Roe v. Wade is resulting in a startling consequence that abortion opponents may not have considered: fewer medical services available for all women living in those states.

Doctors are showing — through their words and actions — that they are reluctant to practice in places where making the best decision for a patient could result in huge fines or even a prison sentence. And when clinics that provide abortions close their doors, all the other services offered there also shut down, including regular exams, breast cancer screenings, and contraception.

The concern about repercussions for women's health is being raised not just by abortion rights advocates. One recent warning comes from Jerome Adams, who served as surgeon general in the Trump administration and is now working on health equity issues at Purdue University in Indiana.

In a recent tweet thread, Adams wrote that "the tradeoff of a restricted access (and criminalizing doctors) only approach to decreasing abortions could end up being that you actually make pregnancy less safe for everyone, and increase infant and maternal mortality."

Medical 'brain drain'

An early indication of that impending medical "brain drain" came in February, when 76% of respondents in a survey of more than 2,000 current and future physicians say they would not even apply to work or train in states with abortion restrictions. "In other words," wrote the study's authors in an accompanying article, "many qualified candidates would no longer even consider working or training in more than half of U.S. states."

Indeed, states with abortion bans saw a larger decline in medical school seniors applying for residency in 2023 compared with states without bans, according to a study from the Association of American Medical Colleges. While applications for OB-GYN residencies are down nationwide, the decrease in states with complete abortion bans was more than twice as large as those with no restrictions (10.5% vs. 5.2%).

That means fewer doctors to perform critical preventive care like Pap smears and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases, which can lead to infertility.

Care for pregnant women specifically is at risk, as hospitals in rural areas close maternity wards because they can't find enough professionals to staff them — a problem that predated the abortion ruling but has only gotten worse since.

In March, Bonner General Health, the only hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, announced it would discontinue its labor and delivery services, in part because of "Idaho's legal and political climate" that includes state legislators continuing to "introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care."

Amplified risks

Heart-wrenching reporting from around the country shows that abortion bans are also imperiling the health of some patients who experience miscarriage and other nonviable pregnancies. Earlier this year, a pregnant woman with a nonviable fetus in Oklahoma was told to wait in the parking lot until she got sicker after being informed that doctors "can't touch you unless you are crashing in front of us."

A study from University at Buffalo researchers in the Women's Health Issues journal finds that doctors practicing in states that restrict abortion are less likely than those in states that allow abortion to have been trained to perform the same early abortion procedures that are used for women experiencing miscarriages early in pregnancy.

But it's more than a lack of doctors that could complicate pregnancies and births. States with the toughest abortion restrictions are also the least likely to offer support services for low-income mothers and babies. Even before the overturn of Roe, a report from the Commonwealth Fund, a nonpartisan research group, found that maternal death rates in states with abortion restrictions or bans were 62% higher than in states where abortion was more readily available.

Women who know their pregnancies could become high-risk are thinking twice about getting or being pregnant in states with abortion restrictions. Carmen Broesder, an Idaho woman who chronicled her difficulties getting care for a miscarriage in a series of viral videos on TikTok, told ABC News she does not plan to try to get pregnant again.

"Why would I want to go through my daughter almost losing her mom again to have another child?" she said. "That seems selfish and wrong."

Make birth free?

The anti-abortion movement once appeared more sensitive to arguments that its policies neglect the needs of women and children. An icon of the anti-abortion movement — Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who died in 2007 — made a point of partnering with liberal Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on legislation to expand Medicaid coverage and provide more benefits to address infant mortality in the late 1980s.

Few anti-abortion groups are following that example by pushing policies to make it easier for people to get pregnant, give birth, and raise children. Most of those efforts are flying under the radar.

This year, Americans United for Life and Democrats for Life of America put out a joint position paper urging policymakers to "make birth free." Among their suggestions are automatic insurance coverage, without deductibles or copays, for pregnancy and childbirth; eliminating payment incentives for cesarean sections and in-hospital deliveries; and a "monthly maternal stipend" for the first two years of a child's life.

"Making birth free to American mothers can and should be a national unifier in a particularly divided time," says the paper. Such a policy could not only make it easier for people to start families, but it could address the nation's dismal record on maternal mortality.

But a make-birth-free policy seems unlikely to advance very far or very quickly in a year when the same Republican lawmakers who support a national abortion ban are even more vehemently pushing for large federal budget cuts in the debt ceiling fight.

That leaves abortion opponents at something of a crossroads: Will they follow Hyde's example and champion policies that expand and protect access to care? Or will women's health suffer under the movement's victory?

KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.

Copyright 2023 KFF Health News. To see more, visit KFF Health News.

Julie Rovner