Idaho Attorney General Labrador questions doctors’ accounts of abortion emergencies

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Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador cast doubts on doctors’ claims that they’re transferring an increasing number of patients out of state for care to comply with the state’s strict abortion laws.

The claims were central to a U.S. Supreme Court hearing Wednesday that will determine whether Idaho abortion law conflicts with the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, or EMTALA. In amicus briefs filed for the case, and in interviews with the Idaho Statesman and other news outlets, doctors and the state’s largest health care provider, St. Luke’s, described emergency situations that prompted the transfer of patients out of state to seek abortions.

St. Luke’s chief physician executive Dr. Jim Souza last week told the Statesman the hospital system has transported six patients out of state for obstetric emergencies since January, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Idaho’s law to fully take effect. In 2023, St. Luke’s transferred a single patient out of state for an emergency abortion, Souza said.

Labrador at a news conference after the Supreme Court hearing implied that those transfers either didn’t happen or were unnecessary. He said the statements about out-of-state transfers, which were referenced during the hearing, were not made under oath.

Labrador also said doctors are not “conforming with their practice” if they transfer patients whose lives are in danger to hospitals out of state.

“It’s really hard for me to conceive of a single instance where a woman has to be airlifted out of Idaho to perform an abortion,” Labrador said. “In fact, I have talked to doctors in the same ER rooms that (hospitals are) talking about, and they are telling me that they have no idea what this administrator is talking about.”

Labrador and Idaho Chief of Constitutional Litigation and Policy Joshua Turner, who argued in court on the state’s behalf, maintained that Idaho law doesn’t clash with the federal law, which applies to any hospital that accepts Medicare funding. The Idaho attorneys said that in “every single” hypothetical medical situation presented by the U.S. Department of Justice in the case, Idaho law would allow abortion.

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

The federal government and Idaho doctors have told a different story.

In the amicus briefs and interviews, physicians and St. Luke’s Health System said there’s fear and confusion around Idaho law. Doctors face criminal prosecution if they perform an abortion in violation of the law’s exceptions — when “necessary to prevent the death” of a pregnant woman, in cases of ectopic or molar pregnancy and in reported instances of rape or incest.

“I would hate to think that St. Luke’s or any other hospital is trying to do something like this just to make a political statement, which I think is actually dangerous,” Labrador said.

In a written statement to the Statesman, St. Luke’s spokesperson Christine Myron said the hospital system stands by Souza’s statements.

“We do not have any way of knowing who Attorney General Labrador spoke to related to out-of-state patient transfers for pregnancy complications, but what we can share with confidence is our data,” Myron said. “During the time that Idaho has not had EMTALA protections for pregnancy complications, six pregnant patients in St. Luke’s care required out-of-state air transport from the emergency department to protect their health and prevent material deterioration and/or loss of organ function, not to prevent death.”

Labrador also pointed to statements made by the Idaho Medical Association and blamed them for confusing the public. Idaho Medical Association CEO Susie Keller has said that abortion laws make it challenging for doctors to care for pregnant women with complications, and that the state is unfortunately “digging itself into a workforce hole that will take many years, if not decades, to fill.”

“This is something they’re doing on purpose, and they’re doing it for a political purpose,” Labrador said.

Keller in a statement said Idaho law should be changed to clearly reflect the attorney general’s claims that doctors will not be prosecuted for acting to preserve a pregnant woman’s health in an emergency. She invited Labrador to work with the association to fine-tune the law.

“I know dozens of Idaho physicians who would be happy to sit down with AG Labrador to share their experiences with him and have a collaborative discussion about how to improve our legal environment for Idaho moms and dads who are trying to start or grow their families,” Keller said.

I believe doctors, Idaho lawmaker says

Idaho Senate and House minority leaders Melissa Wintrow and Ilana Rubel, both Boise Democrats, were also in Washington, D.C., for the hearing. They said Labrador’s take on doctors’ experiences was “gaslighting” and ignored the reality of the situation in Idaho.

“I understand it is an inconvenient truth for them, that the law that they passed and that they supported has had catastrophic fallout,” Rubel told the Statesman. “And I understand that it’s easier to simply deny the facts than to confront that what they did was very, very bad and very harmful to the people of Idaho.”

Wintrow emphasized that she believes the doctors — including the nearly 700 physicians who are members of the Idaho Coalition for Safe Healthcare — who have spoken out about their struggles with the law. She said she was “speechless” at Labrador’s implication that physicians and hospitals have been dishonest.

“They’re working as hard as they can to make sure their patients are safe, and to call them into question is just a specter to divert attention,” she said.

Wintrow and Rubel also pushed back against Labrador’s claim that Idaho law is clear on when abortion is permitted. The legislators said the law leaves room for doctors to worry that their licenses will be revoked or they will face prison time if they perform abortions. Wintrow said that uncertainty is directly responsible for the state’s recent loss of 22% of its OB-GYNs.

“Why are physicians leaving the state?” Wintrow said. “Because they are afraid of a rabid attorney general who wants to take them to jail.”