Abortion restrictions repel graduating OB-GYNs from conservative states, report shows

A survey found new doctors are changing their plans to practice in states with abortion restrictions after the 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that preserved abortion as a constitutional right for nearly 50 years.

Researchers from the University of Utah School of Medicine received responses from nearly 350 graduating obstetricians and gynecologists from training sites in 37 states. Findings showed more than 17% of residents said the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision changed their practice and fellowship plans.

Residents who had intended to practice in abortion-restrictive states before the decision were eight times more likely to change their plans after the decision than new doctors who wanted to practice in states that protected abortion, according to the report published Thursday in Obstetrics & Gynecology, the official journal of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Experts say the findings add to growing evidence of a medical brain drain in states with a conservative majority, where abortion laws are not only driving established doctors away but also deterring new talent.

The trend will exacerbate maternal mortality rates in areas of the country where maternity care is limited, also known as maternity care deserts, said the study’s lead author Dr. Alex Woodcock, a complex family planning fellow at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

“We're going to see medical students and residents and physicians continue to leave these spaces because they don’t feel like they can practice the full spectrum of care that they spent their life learning how to do,” said Dr. Leilah Zahedi-Spung, an OB-GYN in maternal-fetal medicine and complex family planning in Denver, who is unaffiliated with the study.

Before the Dobbs decision, maternal death rates were 62% higher in states that restricted abortion compared with states where there was access, according to a report from the Commonwealth Fund. Experts worry providers will continue to leave, driving up mortality rates.

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“It’s only going to get worse,” said Zahedi-Spung, who recently left Tennessee, a state with one of the strictest abortion bans, due to the Dobbs decision. “We’re going to watch so many more pregnant people die, unfortunately.”

In follow-up interviews, survey participants said they would consider returning to conservative states if the hospital guaranteed legal protection for their practice and offered more money, according to Woodcock. They’d also wanted to see health care systems take a definitive and public stance on abortion.

“Applicants don’t want to apply to hospitals in restrictive states and hear silence on what those places are doing in terms of advocacy efforts,” she said.

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on X, formerly Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion: New doctors avoid conservative states, survey shows