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News / Northwest

Idaho group explores ballot initiative for abortion rights

‘We are going to seek a fix from our people,’ spokeswoman says

By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press
Published: April 20, 2024, 6:01am

BOISE, Idaho — A new Idaho organization says it will ask voters to restore abortion access and other reproductive health care rights in the state after lawmakers let a second legislative session end without modifying strict abortion bans that have been blamed for a recent exodus of health care providers.

“We have not been able to get a fix from our lawmakers, our politicians. We are going to seek a fix from our people,” Melanie Folwell, a spokeswoman for Idahoans United for Women and Families, said Friday morning. “The people in Idaho understand the contours of this problem.”

Idaho has several anti-abortion laws on the books, including one that makes performing abortions a crime even in medical emergencies unless they are done to save the life of the pregnant patient. The federal government has sued Idaho over the ban, contending it violates a federal law that requires hospitals to provide stabilizing care — including abortion — if a patient’s life or health is at serious risk.

Idaho’s attorneys say the ban allows for life-saving procedures for things like ectopic pregnancies, and they contend the Biden administration is trying to create a federal “abortion loophole” at Idaho hospitals.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in that case on Wednesday.

Idahoans United for Women and Families is fundraising and hopes to have one or more ballot initiatives ready to propose this summer in an effort to get them on the 2026 ballot, Folwell said.

Across the country, there have been increased efforts to put abortion rights questions to voters since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and removed the nationwide right to abortion. Voters in seven states have sided with abortion rights supporters on ballot measures, and several other states have signature drives for future ballot initiatives underway.

Cynthia Dalsing, a certified nurse midwife in northern Idaho and a board member for Idahoans United for Women and Families, said her region went from offering a “premiere obstetric range of services” to becoming a maternal care desert after the four local obstetricians moved out of state.

Pregnant women in the state’s panhandle now must either travel as much as 80 miles away or leave the state entirely for obstetric care, Dalsing said. Some are delivering babies at home because of a lack of other options, she said.

Warning of ripple effects

Roughly one-quarter of Idaho obstetricians have stopped practicing since a near-total abortion ban took effect in August 2022, along with about half of the state’s maternal fetal medicine doctors, according to data compiled by the Idaho Physician Well-Being Action Collaborative. Three hospitals have closed their labor and delivery units.

Some physicians and businesses are warning that the abortion bans carry other ripple effects as well.

During a news conference on Thursday, Dr. Jim Souza said the reduced access to prenatal health care means some dangerous pregnancy conditions will be diagnosed later than normal. Souza, the chief physician executive at the Boise-based St. Luke’s Health System, said that could lead to increased need for intensive medical treatment for newborns or expensive medical interventions for mothers that could have been avoided with better access to obstetric care.

A coalition of groups including the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Levi Strauss & Co., Yelp, Lyft and Match Group Inc. which runs dating apps like Tinder filed a friend-of-the court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case contending that the abortion bans make it harder to recruit and retain workers and lead to increased time off of work for those who have to travel elsewhere for care.

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