University of Idaho staff could face legal action for discussing or providing abortion services

Photo courtesy of Bob Daemmrich

University of Idaho staff received an email from the school’s Office of General Counsel on Sept. 23 advising employees to not provide birth control, saying classroom discussions on abortion should be limited and warning not to promote or provide abortion services. In the school’s view, this set of guidelines will have them comply with the 2021 No Public Funds for Abortion Act (NPFAA).

This restriction also applies to University of Idaho health care workers dispensing birth control and emergency contraceptives, except in cases where rape or incest can be legally proven. Due to the lengthy process for reporting cases of rape, by the time police reports are finalized and a court has proven someone guilty of rape, the emergency contraceptive is useless.

Possible penalties for offering or advertising services “for the prevention of conception” listed in the email include misdemeanors, felonies (with imprisonment and fines), loss of employment and a permanent bar from future state employment.

“University of Idaho is committed to operating within the confines of laws of the state of Idaho which restrict expenditures of funds and activities of university employees in the areas of abortion and contraception,” the email said.

In their interpretation of the law regarding birth control being related to abortion, the memo cites Idaho Code §18-603, which was passed in 1972, one year prior to the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade. Reported by KTVB’s Brian Holmes, the 1972 law is nearly identical in language to a 1887 law, which made it illegal to publish advertisments for abortion services.

The university’s Office of General Counsel admitted in the email that the language listed in this code is “not a model of clarity” and that what is meant by preventing conception “is unclear and untested in the courts,” but advised that U of I take “a conservative approach here” and “not provide standard birth control itself.”

While the memo said “academic freedom” supports classroom discussions related to abortion, it states that those discussions should be limited to what is “relevant to the class subject.” Professors and other university employees “must themselves remain neutral,” and failure to do so could see them face prosecution, imprisonment and a “permanent bar from future state employment,” as stated above.

Rev. Elizabeth Stevens of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse, and one of the leaders of the Bans Off Our Bodies Moscow group, described the memo as a “gag order” that impedes on the free speech of employees, staff and students in an interview with the Idaho Statesman. 

[Protestors gather to advocate for abortion rights.]
Photo courtesy of Bob Daemmrich

“A friend of mine showed me the email she received and I was truthfully horrified. It seemed like a threat from the university to faculty members more than anything,” Ashlynn Valdez, senior economics major at University of Idaho, told The Arbiter. “We already have anti-choice organizations screaming at us on campus regularly, and now I’m worried that there can/will be legal action taken against students who disagree.”

Boise State faculty and staff received an email from the Office of the Provost which first mentioned “Idaho’s Abortion Laws and the University” about nine bullet points down, with a small paragraph and buried link further down in the email to a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) sheet only accessible to people using a staff or faculty email.

Boise State University declined to comment for this story, but referred The Arbiter to an FAQ document to give an idea of how the university will approach the NPFAA.

In regards to whether or not curriculum may include information or training regarding abortion and emergency contraception, the document reads that “curriculum and training could include general information and educational materials that discuss abortion,” as long as there is no promotion of abortion.

Boise State will not provide emergency contraceptives, but they will continue to distribute birth control, stating that, “Neither the NPFAA nor the Dobbs decision impact or alter existing laws relating to birth control and contraception, except for the NPFAA’s provisions prohibiting the distribution of FDA approved emergency contraception,” showcasing a disagreement in how they interpret the law compared to the University of Idaho. 

The document also states that in the case of a pregnant student reaching out to any faculty members at Boise State, that faculty is prohibited from lending advice and should instead “refer the student to University’s licensed counselors and medical providers or to outside counselors, who are trained and ready to assist and refer students to needed resources and information.”

The document says that private individuals acting outside of their employment have first amendment rights to political speech and that “students and faculty, in general, possess certain rights relating to academic freedom.”

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