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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I can’t practice like this.’ Another OBGYN leaves Idaho over state’s strict abortion laws

Christine Arnold, of Boise, holds a sign echoing the worry about diminishing health care in Idaho in an April protest at the Capitol. About a quarter of OBGYNs have left Idaho since the U.S. Supreme Court decision triggered the state’s strict abortion bans.  (Darin Oswald)
By Nicole Blanchard Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Dr. Harmony Schroeder figured she had 10 more years of seeing patients and delivering babies at OGA Women’s Health Clinic in Meridian, Idaho, before she retired and moved to McCall, where she sees patients a few times a month.

But that changed two years ago.

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in summer 2022 and handed abortion regulations back to the states, Schroeder and many other doctors in Idaho began to wonder what their futures would look like in Idaho as strict trigger laws banning abortion took effect.

For Schroeder, it was too much. She and her family decided to relocate to Washington – where Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has criticized Idaho abortion policies – after months of heartrending discussion.

“I have a lot of attachment to Idaho,” Schroeder told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview. “I have a lot of friends here. I have a long, long history (with) my patients here. It was an incredibly painful and hard decision to make.”

Last month, she sent letters and emails to about 3,000 patients, letting them know she would be leaving after 20 years at the practice.

“I want to be transparent with you about why I am leaving,” Schroeder wrote. “It has become increasingly difficult to practice safe and effective medicine due to lawmakers interfering with our exam room, the ones you and I share, in our medical decision-making about what’s best for you.”

Schroeder joins dozens of reproductive health care providers who have left Idaho since 2022 over the new abortion laws.

“I think this Legislature is not putting value on women’s health, and I’m not OK with that,” Schroeder told the Statesman.

Threat of jail

Idaho has lost 22% of its OBGYNs since the Supreme Court decision, and hospitals say new doctors are increasingly difficult to recruit, according to data from the Idaho Medical Association.

“The number of interested candidates has dropped off dramatically, and it is taking twice as long to fill positions,” the association told the Statesman in an emailed statement. “Idaho is digging itself into a physician workforce hole that will take many years, if not decades, to fix.”

Last year, Bonner General Health in Sandpoint closed its labor and delivery department. It cited, in part, the state’s abortion laws. Caldwell’s West Valley Medical Center and Emmett’s Valor Health have also closed their labor and delivery departments. Those hospitals cited low birth rates and lack of resources for their closures.

Susie Keller, the association’s CEO, told the Statesman Schroeder’s departure is “a terrible loss.”

Idaho law only allows for abortion in a few instances: for ectopic or molar pregnancies, to save the life of a pregnant patient or in cases of rape or incest that have been reported to law enforcement.

Physicians face prison time and loss of their license if they violate the law. Confusion over what constitutes life-saving versus health-preserving care has taken Idaho’s law to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Attorney General Raúl Labrador said there is no conflict between the law and the care doctors say they can’t provide.

The court is expected to issue a ruling soon on the Emergency Medical Labor and Treatment Act and whether it overrides Idaho abortion restrictions. In separate challenges to the abortion bans, the Idaho Supreme Court last year upheld the state laws.

“We have been clear on what the law means, and the Idaho Supreme Court was clear about what the law means,” Labrador said.

‘There is a constant threat,’ Boise OBGYN says

Schroeder told patients in her letter that, because of the potential consequences of the new law, she’s afraid to make some of the complex, necessary decisions for their health.

“There is a constant threat that I can lose my medical license and go to prison for doing the right thing for you, a decision that should be made by you and me,” Schroeder wrote in her letter.

She told the Statesman physicians face an equally intolerable alternative: not providing care in line with national medical standards.

“I don’t want to practice substandard care of medicine, and I don’t want to go to jail,” Schroeder told the Statesman.

She decided to share her reason for leaving with patients, she added, because it felt like it was the right thing to do. She didn’t want patients to believe she was “abandoning them” or retiring, and she wanted them to know she didn’t make the decision lightly.

Most of her patients let her know they received the letter, Schroeder said, and they’ve discussed her departure with tears and, for some, a bit of panic.

“I’ve taken care of some of them for over 20 years,” Schroeder told the Statesman. “I’ve delivered their kids. I’ve had a couple where I’ve delivered their kids’ kids.”

According to a letter OGA sent to patients with Schroeder’s announcement, she has delivered over 2,000 babies during her time at the clinic in addition to focusing on adolescent health issues and menopause.

Schroeder’s last day at OGA will be July 3. After that, her patients can reschedule with other providers at the clinic or look for a new doctor elsewhere. Schroeder told the Statesman she knows her patients will be in good hands with her colleagues, but she still has some guilt over leaving.

Soon her family will be in Washington, where she has a position at a new hospital.

“I’m not ready to quit, but I can’t practice like this,” Schroeder said.