March 24, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Idaho Republicans want to keep doctors from treating ectopic pregnancies 

It’s all about the uncertainty, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.


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We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” exclaims a disgruntled philosopher in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The philosophers had banded together to protest the advancement of computer science, which they believed was imposing entirely too much clarity on the existential mysteries that gave them job security. 

The Idaho GOP and a coalition of antichoice groups in the state are taking a similar tack regarding the state’s murky and punitive abortion law. 

Ectopic pregnancies are fertilized eggs that implant outside the uterus. These rogue ova will never become babies and they can kill the patient if they’re allowed to swell like a tumor on a speedrun.

This session, two Republican state legislators introduced a bill that would clarify key concepts in the state’s felony abortion ban. These include defining when an abortion is necessary to save the life of the pregnant person, and confirming once and for all that it’s not a felony to treat ectopic and nonviable pregnancies and to remove fetuses that have died. 

It would also stop doctors who perform life-saving abortions from automatically being dragged before a judge to plead medical necessity as an affirmative defense. 

Whatever happens with the felony abortion ban, Idaho doctors risk devastating lawsuits for treating one of the most common and dangerous gynecological emergencies: ectopic pregnancy. 

Ectopic pregnancies are fertilized eggs that implant outside the uterus. These rogue ova will never become babies and they can kill the patient if they’re allowed to swell like a tumor on a speedrun. 

It’s all about the uncertainty. A doctor doesn’t know if she’s going to get sued by a vengeful ex for treating an ectopic pregnancy, but it could happen. Uncertainty can be even more paralyzing than a clear-cut but draconian rule. 

Rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty can paralyze doctors while letting legislators off the hook for self-evidently stupid and unpopular policies, like forcing patients to wait in agonizing pain until their fallopian tubes rupture and their abdomens fill with blood. Or for letting bacteria rot their uteruses, and surge through their bodies, because their doomed fetus still has a heartbeat. 

The Idaho Republican Party sent out an email Tuesday night claiming that the proposed changes were a ruse by doctors to “have more leeway to perform abortions in Idaho.” The head of the far-right Idaho Family Policy Center fretted in an email to supporters that a “special interest group” had drafted some of the language. 

That group is the Idaho Medical Association, an utterly mainstream group that has been promoting medical excellence in the state since 1893. A hearing on the bill has been postponed amid the antichoice outcry. 

The chilling effects of Idaho’s abortion laws are already being felt. 

The only hospital serving a town of 9,000 people recently announced that it would no longer deliver babies in part because of the abortion ban. Families will soon have to drive 45 miles to deliver their babies. It was always a challenge to attract qualified doctors to small rural towns, but Idaho’s abortion politics are accelerating the brain drain. Doctors are fleeing the state because they don’t want to live in legal limbo. They don’t want to have to choose between satisfying their professional ethics and obeying the law. The law is so vague that it chills doctors who don’t even do abortions. 

We’ve seen in state after state that exceptions to save the life of the pregnant person offer little practical protection. When a doctor might face a lengthy prison term, he or she will probably find an excuse to delay care, even when it endangers the life of a patient. 

Even the antichoice movement is tiring of the charade. Instead of grappling with the ethical implications of denying life-saving care, national antichoice groups have started promulgating the absurd lie that abortion is never medically necessary

In 2022, the Idaho Republicans voted nearly four to one to amend their party platform to criminalize all abortions, including lifesaving terminations. An exception for ectopic pregnancies was proposed and rejected. 

When the goal is cruelty, uncertainty is a valuable commodity, and Idaho antichoicers have rallied to defend it. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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