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White House responds to University of Idaho email regarding abortion

 A brick wall with the words "university of Idaho" on it and a fountain in front.
Jimmy Emerson

The White House has issued a statement criticizing an email the University of Idaho sent to employees last week.

“For years, GOP officials have gone after contraception and family planning services. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, GOP officials appear more empowered to strip Americans of their basic rights," wrote White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Twitter.

"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.”

The University of Idaho email, sent on September 24, cautioned employees to avoid promoting abortion to comply with a 2021 Idaho statute.

"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."

The email goes on to say classroom discussions related to abortion "should be approached carefully." University employees are allowed to direct students to information related to abortion outside of the university, but must remain neutral on the topic according to the email.

First Amendment expert and UCLA professor Eugene Volokh said the law will affect speech.

"Statutes that are unclear and haven't yet been tested and evaluated by the courts often do end up chilling people's behavior and people's speech," said Volokh.

The U of I email continued to say abortion could be talked about neutrally in a classroom, but "academic freedom is not a defense to violation of law."

"Although one might wish they would err on the side of maybe more protecting academic freedom and perhaps arguing in favor of a narrower interpretation of the statute," said Volokh.

The White House statement also called out the email for limiting access to birth control on campus, saying the policies are "extreme and backwards." Access to any contraception through the university will be limited, except for condoms to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases and birth control provided by licensed healthcare 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.”

Idaho's near-total abortion ban went into effect in August, but a federal judge has temporarily blocked its implementation in relation only to abortions provided in emergency rooms.

James Dawson and Rachel Cohen contributed reporting for this story.

I joined Boise State Public Radio in 2022 as the Canyon County reporter through Report for America, to report on the growing Latino community in Idaho. I am very invested in listening to people’s different perspectives and I am very grateful to those who are willing to share their stories with me. It’s a privilege and I do not take it for granted.
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