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U of I warns employees to stay neutral on abortion or risk prosecution

University of Idaho campus
A file photo of University of Idaho

The University of Idaho is warning its employees that promoting abortion, or providing contraception in some cases, could result in imprisonment, fines and a permanent bar from state employment.

In an email sent Friday and obtained by Boise State Public Radio, the university’s office of general counsel said it was summarizing Idaho state laws in an effort to “assist university employees in complying with the restrictions,” noting it was unclear how the laws would be enforced in a “new and evolving legal landscape”.

"The University of Idaho follows all laws. This is a challenging law for many and has real ramifications for individuals in that it calls for individual criminal prosecution," a university spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement Monday.

The restrictions listed stem from a law passed by the Idaho Legislature and signed by Gov. Brad Little in 2021, titled the “No Public Funds for Abortion Act.”

Under it, the email said, the use of public funds and facilities to promote abortion, provide an abortion, counsel in favor of an abortion or to contract with abortion providers, among other activities, are prohibited.

These restrictions apply to university employees, and individuals convicted in violation of the law could face misdemeanor or felony convictions.

"The law (IC §18-8705) states that no public funds 'shall be used in any way to … promote abortion,'" the university said in its emailed statement. "The section does not specify what is meant by promoting abortion, however, it is clear that university employees are paid with public funds. Employees engaging in their course of work in a manner that favors abortion could be deemed as promoting abortion."

In addition to guidance for health care settings, the email said classroom discussions related to abortion “should be approached carefully,” that they have to be related to the class material and that the instructor must stay neutral.

“Academic freedom is not a defense to violation of law,” it said.

The 2021 state law also labeled dispensing of emergency contraception, such as Plan B, as an “abortion-related” activity, barring university health centers from providing it except in cases of rape as defined by Idaho code.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists writes that while emergency contraception is often confused with medical abortion, it is only effective “before a pregnancy is established.”

Access to any contraception through the university will be limited, except for condoms to help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and birth control provided by licensed health care workers at the student health center.

That’s because the general counsel said another section of Idaho code, prohibiting anyone other than a licensed physician from facilitating an abortion or the prevention of conception, is “unclear and untested in the courts.”

“Since violation is considered a felony, we are advising a conservative approach here, that the university not provide standard birth control itself,” the email stated.

Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawai'i, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky commented Monday on this decision, saying the announcement was part of a larger effort to weaken birth control access.

"These attacks on birth control are not theoretical. They are already happening," Rebecca Gibron, the CEO of the regional Planned Parenthood branch, said in a press release.

"And 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."

University employees are allowed to direct students to information related to abortion outside the university, but must stay neutral on the topic, the email said.

Idaho’s near-total abortion ban went into effect last month, though a federal judge temporarily blocked its implementation in relation only to abortions provided in emergency rooms.

James Dawson contributed reporting for this story.

Editor's note: This post has been updated with statements from the University of Idaho and Planned Parenthood.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.