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Could Florida's new abortion restrictions 'drive doctors away?' Some say it's already happening

'Right now, we are projecting quite a shortage of OBGYN by 2030,' Dr. Rachel Humphrey says
Posted at 11:50 AM, May 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-13 17:47:51-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida doctors who care for pregnant patients say they're struggling under the weight of abortion restrictions that took effect earlier this month, banning the procedure in most instances after six weeks into a pregnancy.

Those doctors, as well as attorneys, worry the new law could impact health care across Florida.

Dr. Lindsay Maggio, a maternal fetal medicine specialist, spent eight years building a career in Florida before she packed up her Orlando-area practice in 2023 and moved back to her native New Jersey.

"There were social implications, financial implications. I mean, moving in and of itself is not easy. I have two small children," Maggio said. "I loved being in Florida and practicing in Florida. It just got increasingly more challenging over the last couple of years to feel like I could safely do my job and offer the level of care that I wanted to offer patients."

Dr. Lindsay Maggio discusses why she left Florida following the passage of more restrictive abortion laws.
Dr. Lindsay Maggio discusses why she left Florida following the passage of more restrictive abortion laws.

Maggio said her decision to relocate was the result of Florida's increasingly restrictive policies on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in 2022. When Maggio moved, the procedure was banned after 15 weeks.

"In my world, most people who are choosing to end a pregnancy are doing it after 15 weeks when they find a devastating genetic diagnosis or birth defect," she said.

Since the six-week ban took effect, OBGYNs who remain in Florida worry their ranks will dwindle even more.

"Right now, we are projecting quite a shortage of OBGYN by 2030," Dr. Rachel Humphrey, who specializes in high-risk pregnancies in Orlando, said. "Bans like this have been shown to drive doctors away."

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Research shows this has already played out in other states with more restrictive abortion laws.

A report published this year by a collective of Idaho physicians found that 22% of the state's obstetricians left Idaho during the 15-month period immediately following the state's ban on nearly all abortions.

When one Idaho hospital shuttered its labor and delivery unit last year, a spokeswoman cited the state's "legal and political climate" among the causes.

"We live in the day and age where doctors have to worry about what they do because they don't want to end up in prison," Humphrey said. "It's against our Hippocratic oath and our general fabric to have our hands tied to where what you know is best for a patient and what a patient really wants is something that can't happen."

Florida's law banning most abortions contains an exception if the mother's life is in danger — or to prevent "a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment."

Humphrey said she and her colleagues are being advised by lawyers to navigate, what she calls "confusing" paperwork, to comply with the new law in those situations.

"That's just insane that any lawyer would be making those types of decisions, right?" Adriana Gonzalez, a lawyer in Palm Beach County who specializes in medical malpractice litigation, said. "Anytime that you subject medical providers to criminal prosecution and possible jail, over time, you're going to decrease access to care and you're going to overburden the health care system."

Gonzalez said she's bracing for a wave of medical malpractice lawsuits — not just from pregnant women who are denied emergency care.

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"What happens when we have an overwhelmed health care system, right? There's going to be overworked doctors, understaffed hospitals. That is the perfect condition for medical errors to happen," she said.

Gonzalez added that the lawsuits can drive up health care costs as insurance companies pass legal expenses onto their customers and fewer people have access to preventative health care.

To address the dangers of what it called in its official notice "a deeply dishonest scare campaign" surrounding the new abortion law, Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration issued an emergency rule on May 2 — the day after the six-week ban took effect. The rule states that ending a pregnancy is allowed in order to treat complications like ectopic pregnancies or membrane ruptures.

"Here's the challenge," Humphrey said. "Every pregnancy is unique, every patient is unique, and they're never going to be able to list every condition."

But not every OBGYN shares those concerns.

"Not only in the state of Florida but in any other state in America, it is clear that every physician has the ability to save the life of a mother if the mother's life is in danger because of her pregnancy," Dr. Karysse Hutson, an OBGYN hospitalist and surgeon who works in Fort Myers, said.

Hutson serves as medical director for Canopy Global and Save the Storks, organizations that aim to prevent abortion, which Hutson believes is more harmful to the patient than remaining pregnant.

She said feels confident in her ability to safely serve patients and respect their decisions.

"In all of my experience and training, I have never had to separate that baby from the mother prior to viability," Hutson said. "When patients ask me for the options that they have for their pregnancy, I discuss all of their options, including abortion, adoption, parenting...I give them a thorough rundown of all of the risks and benefits of each of those options."

Hutson cited increased risks of breast cancer and lasting mental health impacts among women who've had abortions as the reasons that shape her beliefs on abortion. She provided research from the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists to support those claims.

The American Cancer Society says research does not support a link between abortion and cancer, and the American Psychological Association says research shows worse mental health outcomes among women who seek abortions but can't get them.

Maggio and Humphrey also warned that it will be challenging to replace any Florida OBGYNs who leave or retire.

Data published this month by the American Association of Medical Colleges show decreases in applications for residency programs in states that restrict abortion, compared to states that don't. The declines were seen across all specialties listed in the report, but pediatric and OBGYN residencies saw the steepest declines.

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