BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Public universities in Idaho are warning staffers not to refer students to abortion providers or tell them how to get emergency contraception because they could be charged with a felony, and one is barring employees from recommending birth control, as well.
The guidance from the University of Idaho and Boise State University forms the latest restrictions in a state that already has some of the nation's strictest abortion laws.
“This is going to have a very broad impact. It's going to have a very strong chilling effect on free speech,” said Mike Satz, an attorney and former faculty member and interim dean at the University of Idaho’s College of Law. “I'm afraid it's going to scare people from going to school here or sending their kids to school at Idaho institutions.”
The prohibition against referring students or “promoting” abortion in any way comes from the No Public Funds for Abortion Act, a law passed by Idaho's Republican-led Legislature in 2021. Boise State, like the University of Idaho, told faculty members in a newsletter this month that they could face felony charges for violating the law. Idaho State did not respond to phone messages from The Associated Press asking if it had issued similar guidance.
The law also bars staffers and school-based health clinics from dispensing or telling students where to obtain emergency contraception except in cases of rape. Such drugs prevent pregnancy from occurring and do not work when someone is already pregnant.
The University of Idaho's guidance goes a step further, also warning employees about a pre-statehood law written in 1867. It prohibits dispensing or “advertising” abortion services and birth control — leading to UI's advice that condoms be distributed only to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, not to prevent pregnancy. Lawmakers last updated the law in 1974, roughly a year after the U.S. Supreme Court said in Roe v. Wade that women have the right to abortion.
It's not yet clear how the the law barring “advertising or promoting” abortion and birth control services could affect students or other state employees who may use state-owned computers or wireless networks to share information on social media.
Scott Graf, a spokesperson for Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, said his office planned an internal call Tuesday to discuss the guidance and abortion laws.
Jodi Walker, spokesperson for UI, said that the university follows all laws and that school officials were still “working through some of the details.”
“This is a challenging law for many and has real ramifications for individuals in that it calls for individual criminal prosecution,” she said of the public funds law.
Abortion can still be discussed as a policy issue in classrooms, Walker said, but the university recommends that the employees in charge of the class “remain neutral or risk violating this law.”
“We support our students and employees, as well as academic freedom, but understand the need to work within the laws set out by our state,” she said.
Republican Rep. Brent Crane, one of a dozen lawmakers who sponsored the act, said laws on complicated issues like abortion and emergency contraception frequently require fine-tuning, and he expected this one could end up being decided in court or tweaked during the next legislative session starting in January. He said he had not yet heard any complaints from constituents or the universities about the law.
“At the end of the day, lawmakers want to try and get it right, and they they want to represent the values of the citizens of Idaho,” Crane said in a telephone interview. “We need to proceed with prudence and caution and judiciousness to make sure that we get this right.”
Crane, who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, also said he would be willing to consider legislation to ban emergency contraception statewide but has not yet decided on how he would vote on such a bill.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a prepared statement Tuesday that the Idaho policies are “extreme and backwards."
“To be clear, nothing under Idaho law justifies the university’s decision to deny students access to contraception. But the situation in Idaho speaks to the unacceptable consequences of extreme abortion bans,” Jean-Pierre said. “The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in the right to birth control, as well as the right to abortion, without government interference.”
Rebecca Gibron, the CEO of the regional Planned Parenthood organization that serves Idaho, called the guidance “the canary in the coal mine.”
“These attacks on birth control are not theoretical. They are already happening,” Gibron said in a prepared statement. “The University of Idaho's new policy is just the latest example of extremists and draconian laws threatening to strip us of all control over their reproductive health care.”
Idaho isn't the only state where employees have been cautioned not to give abortion advice. Social workers, clergy members and others have raised concerns in Oklahoma about being exposed to criminal or civil liability just for discussing abortions.
Lisa Bostaph, a criminal justice professor at Boise State, said she didn't understand how the birth control law could be enforced, since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965 said states can't criminalize the use of contraception. She fears Idaho's laws will have vast repercussions.
“Unintended pregnancies can dramatically impact a woman's ability to complete higher education,” Bostaph said in a telephone interview from her home, before leaving for work. “As a faculty member, how do we have conversations about abortion and birth control in a neutral manner?”
That seems easy enough to do in many general classroom discussions, Bostaph said, but it's likely much harder when students are studying topics like medicine or the criminal justice system.
Nursing students will need to learn about when and why birth control is prescribed, and criminal justice students may have assignments related to reproductive coercion or the increased homicide risk experienced by that pregnant domestic violence victims, Bostaph said.
“If the science says the right thing to do is to provide birth control in this patient," she said, "is presenting that information neutral?”