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U.S. Senate Dems tie state abortion bans to fewer beginning physicians

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U.S. Senate Dems tie state abortion bans to fewer beginning physicians

May 21, 2024 | 1:38 pm ET
By Jennifer Shutt
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U.S. Senate Dems tie state abortion bans to fewer beginning physicians
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Washington state Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray speaks during a press conference on reproductive rights on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Also pictured from the left are Dr. Raegan McDonald Mosley, CEO of Power to Decide, and Karen Stone, vice president of Public Policy & Government Relations at Planned Parenthood. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON — Bans or severe restrictions on abortion access enacted by Republican state lawmakers have led to a downturn in medical students seeking to practice in those states, and a handful of Democratic U.S. senators said Tuesday those laws must be reversed.

During a press conference just steps from the U.S. Capitol, the lawmakers and reproductive rights advocates cited a study released in early May by the Association of American Medical Colleges Research and Action Institute.

The study “found that fewer new graduates of U.S. medical schools applied to residency programs in states that banned or restricted access to abortion than to residency programs in states where abortion remained legal.”

In Alabama, for example, the study found that applicants for OB-GYN residency programs in the state dropped 21.2% in 2023-24, the Alabama Reflector reported.

Medical residency programs begin after students graduate medical school and can last between three and seven years depending on what specialty the doctor is training in, according to AAMC.

The AAMC Institute’s website says it takes “a novel and nonpartisan approach to policy challenges, redefines complex problems, and offers feasible solutions to improve U.S. health care among policymakers and the public.”

Washington state Democratic Sen. Patty Murray said the downward trend could exacerbate physician shortages in those states, given that OB-GYNs are leaving them as well.

“It should not be surprising to anyone because after all, why go somewhere politicians and judges can overrule your medical degree and force you to put your patients in harm’s way?” Murray said. “Why practice in a state that threatens you with the loss of your license, heavy fines and even prison time if you dare to help the patient get the abortion care that they need?”

Congress, she said, must work to restore nationwide abortion protections that were in place for nearly 50 years until the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade case less than two years ago.

Wisconsin could lose critical care, Baldwin warns

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin said during the press conference that fewer doctors are choosing her home state to start their careers.

“Universities in states with abortion bans have been forced to send students out of state to receive reproductive care training,” Baldwin said. “I’ve heard from doctors who are commuting across state lines, because they can no longer provide comprehensive care in their own communities.”

The decision by some medical students to seek out residency programs in states with protections for abortion access, could lead to states like Wisconsin “losing critical care for half our population,” Baldwin said.

“Fewer OB-GYNs means fewer doctors to deliver babies and perform prenatal and postnatal check-ups to ensure moms and babies get the healthy start that they deserve,” Baldwin said.

“It means fewer doctors performing routine productive reproductive care, like administering mammograms and connecting women with safe and reliable birth control,” Baldwin said. ‘It means more women in reproductive care deserts unable to find treatment in case of emergencies.”

Baldwin said it “makes sense” that medical residents were seeking to learn and practice in states with protections for abortion access.

“If you were a medical student or doctor, would you rather work in a state that limits the science-backed care that you can provide, or one that has taken politicians out of the doctor’s office?” Baldwin said.

Arizona ‘whiplashes between two abortion bans’

Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly said that doctors and patients in his state “are living with uncertainty and chaos as our state whiplashes between two abortion bans.”

“I’ve spoken to several doctors who are thinking of leaving the state and many who have already left,” Kelly said. “I’ve been on Zoom calls and seen the cardboard boxes piled up in the back. And it’s because they can’t practice under these current circumstances.”

Doctors applying to residency programs in Arizona “decreased by nearly 20% from 2023 to 2024. And for OB-GYNs, applications dropped by more than 25%,” Kelly said.

The only way to reverse the situation, Kelly said, “is by codifying abortion rights into law, once and for all.”

Dr. Raegan McDonald Mosley, CEO of Power to Decide and a practicing physician in Maryland, said during the last two years she’s treated “patients who’ve traveled hundreds and even thousands of miles to get care with me.”

The restrictions or bans on abortion access, she said, have led to longer wait times in states that have protected access, leading to complicated situations for doctors and patients.

The AAMC Institute’s study “shows that students graduating from U.S. medical schools are less likely to apply for residency positions in states with abortion bans and restrictions,” Mosley said.

“These consequences will only exacerbate health inequities across the country,” Mosley said. “As health care providers, we trust our patients to know what they need. We also know that abortion is health care. And yet too many of us are being prevented from providing that care and too many people are suffering as a result.”

Abortion pills sent to patients in states with bans

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he “just heard last week about a young doctor, who left his home state of Oklahoma to come to New York to begin his OB-GYN residency at our state university system.”

New York, he said, has passed so-called “shield laws” that protect doctors within the state borders “to prescribe and send abortion pills to patients in states that have outlawed abortion.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide in the coming weeks whether access to medication abortion, a two-drug regimen approved for up to 10 weeks gestation, will remain as it is now or revert to the prescribing guidelines that were in place before changes began in 2016.

The case could significantly change when and how doctors can prescribe mifepristone and misoprostol for abortions as well as miscarriage care. The justices heard oral arguments in the case in March.

A majority of the nine justices deciding to roll back the prescribing guidelines to what was in place eight years ago would mean that doctors can no longer prescribe the two pharmaceuticals via telehealth and patients would no longer be able to receive them in the mail.

Schumer said during Tuesday’s press conference that restricting abortion access is “cruel” and has led to “chaos for patients and doctors.”