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Activists, students raise concerns over reproductive health access following University of Idaho memo

A brick wall with  "University of Idaho" in gold letters written on it with the date 1889 above it.
Richard Rodriguez
/
Boise State Public Radio

The University of Idaho said it will stop distributing certain kinds of contraceptives because it’s worried about violating an Idaho law forbidding state employees from promoting abortion. The statute is raising concerns amongst activists and students on what this means for reproductive health access.

In a memo sent to staff last week, the university warned its employees to remain “neutral” about abortion to avoid prosecution under the law. It also advised the university “not provide standard birth control itself.”

Idaho Abortion Rights activist Kimra Luna said they are disappointed the university is not standing up for their own students’ health and safety.

“It’s quite frightening to me to think that we have legislation that thinks it's okay to make it very, very, very difficult to get birth control access,” they said.

It also labeled giving out emergency contraception, such as Plan B, as an “abortion-related” activity, barring university health centers from providing them outside of cases of rape.

While they are often mistaken for abortifacients, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says emergency contraceptives do not cause abortions. The contraceptive prevents pregnancy altogether and is only effective prior to conception.

Supreme Court Abortion
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned protections from the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade that ensured a pregnant woman's right to choose to have an abortion, it effectively turned laws concerning abortion over to states. In Idaho, this means almost all abortions in the state will be illegal.

Luna says they’re angry because the law could lead to higher drop-out rates, unwanted pregnancies and economic insecurity.

“This is an attack on young women and people who are capable of becoming pregnant,” they said, “ and I do think that it was intentional.”

Studies have shown that states with stricter abortion laws reported the worst maternal and infant health outcomes in the country.

Universities that were providing Plan B had to stop when the statute went into effect in May of 2021. The school said it would continue to provide condoms but only to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

The statute’s language is vague and First Amendment expert and UCLA professor Eugene Volokh says this may explain why the university is interpreting the law broadly.

“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,” he said.

Idaho State Representative Bruce Skaug co-sponsored the law. He said he didn’t anticipate this confusion because the language is clear.

“My constituents did not want tax dollars being used for abortions directly or indirectly,” he said. “And the bill is having that effect as desired.”

Skaug added the bill didn’t intend to restrict access to standard contraceptives, but to prevent state employees from referring people to abortion clinics.

“I can only speak for myself. I have no intent to put any chilling effect on birth control at all,” he said. “But I don't want my tax dollars to pay for birth control either.”

Asked about abortions at a Capitol for a Day event in Carey, Governor Brad Little said the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade had affected state laws and he expected lawmakers to address issues in the next legislative session.

He said his goal was to have “less abortion” and the laws were not there to block birth control access.

“Some of the innuendo about restrictions on birth control I think are innuendo,” he said. “I would be very surprised if that happens." 

The White House weighed in by tweet, writing nothing under Idaho law justified denying students access to contraception, saying the policies were the results of “extreme abortion bans.”

Fourth-year student Emily Nunes says she was shocked when she heard about what the email said.

“I thought at first it was going to be an email kind of helping us navigate these new laws in a positive way,” she said.

She hoped they would offer them help to figure out how to access resources students might still need, she said. Instead, it focused on restrictions.

“To not even be able to provide counsel is ridiculous to me,” she said, adding the policies were “way, way backwards.” 

Gritman Medical Center, which contracts health care with the university, said in a statement it will continue to provide access to contraceptives and birth control, and the school’s memo will not change how they provide health care to students.

The University of Idaho declined to be interviewed for this story.

Richard Rodriguez contributed reporting for this story.

Find reporter Julie Luchetta on Twitter @JulieLuchetta.

As the Canyon County reporter, I cover the Latina/o/x communities and agricultural hub of the Treasure Valley. I’m super invested in local journalism and social equity, and very grateful to be working in Idaho.