(Bloomberg) -- The University of Idaho is warning faculty and staff to avoid any speech that could be interpreted as promoting abortion or they risk possible criminal charges under the state’s strict laws against the procedure.
In a Sept. 23 memo to staff, general counsel Jim Craig also said the public university should stop offering “standard birth control,” noting that condoms can be distributed only to prevent sexually transmitted disease. A spokeswoman for the university confirmed the letter, which was seen by Bloomberg News.
The university’s recommendation is the latest turn in the fight over reproductive rights. Idaho enacted a trigger law in August that put in place a near-total ban on abortion following the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe v. Wade. That ruling also brought greater attention to a 2021 state law that prohibits public money from funding abortion and bans public employees from promoting it. The law also bans them from promoting emergency contraceptives known as morning-after pills.
“The University of Idaho follows all laws,” the school’s spokeswoman Jodi Walker said in an email. “This is a challenging law for many and has real ramifications for individuals in that it calls for individual criminal prosecution. This guidance was sent to help our employees understand the legal significance and possible actions of this new law passed by the Idaho Legislature.”
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Regarding contraceptives, the letter cited Idaho law that states anyone “who willfully publishes any notice or advertisement of any medicine or means for producing or facilitating a miscarriage or abortion, or for the prevention of conception,” is guilty of a felony.
University employees can “provide condoms for the purpose of helping prevent the spread of STDs and not for purposes of birth control,” the letter said. Walker said the university doesn’t distribute birth control other than condoms.
Planned Parenthood, which supports reproductive rights, attacked the university’s stance, saying that the battle has shifted from abortion to contraception.
“We always knew extremists wouldn’t stop at banning abortion,” Rebecca Gibron, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood’s regional branch, said in a statement. “They’d target birth control next. The University of Idaho’s announcement is the canary in the coal mine, an early sign of the larger, coordinated effort to attack birth control access.”
Walker noted that faculty and staff are public workers and that Idaho’s laws say no public funds shall be used in any way to promote abortion.
“While abortion can be discussed as a policy issue in the classroom, we highly recommend employees in charge of the classroom remain neutral or risk violating this law,” she said.
The Idaho Federation of Teachers, which represents professors at the university, is still preparing its response, said Martin Orr, a sociology professor at Boise State University and the president of the organization. The group sees the memo as a threat and is considering its options.
“On the face of it, this looks like a threat to academic freedom,” Orr said. “This is a bigger issue in health science and social work. How do we talk about gender and social issues without going into this? We’re concerned and deciding how to best address it.”
He said Boise State issued similar guidance on Sept. 13 but didn’t prohibit contraceptives on campus.
Boise State spokesman Mike Sharp declined to comment except to send a document distributed by Boise State to staff that includes the advice that state law prohibits counseling in favor of abortion, referring for the procedure and providing facilities or training for abortion.
Idaho’s abortion ban was challenged by the US Justice Department. A federal judge ruled in favor of a motion by the Biden administration, making it legal for doctors to administer an abortion if the woman’s life is threatened. The law also allows exceptions for rape and incest, but bans abortions in all other cases.
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