The fight against abortion targets the university but affects much more

BOISE, Idaho — A van truck equipped with an illuminated LED billboard began circling around the University of Idaho campus on Friday.

“Pregnant? You always have a choice,” read one of the bright blue and white messages flashing to the side. “You can still get abortion pills by mail,” another message read.

The mobile billboard was a Mayday Health salvo against Idaho’s anti-abortion laws, some of which prohibit state employees from promoting or endorsing abortion or emergency contraception. The organization seeks to educate people in anti-abortion states on how to access abortion and contraception.

Mayday Health chose Moscow, Idaho, for the action after the university warned employees not to refer students to abortion or birth control providers lest they violate state laws. ‘State.

“This effort is part of protecting free speech and the First Amendment,” Kaori Sueyoshi, chief strategy officer for Mayday Health, said Friday morning. “We want to make sure that students at the University of Idaho and surrounding areas have accurate information on how to get birth control pills, Plan B (emergency contraception) as well as how to access a safe abortion.”

Provost Torrey Lawrence of the University of Idaho said the legal advice was simply to protect staff members. Boise State University recently issued similar, though less strict, guidance.

“Some employees were unaware, and others had actually sought legal advice,” Lawrence told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday. “Because our employees are paid from public funds, this could result in criminal prosecution.”

But the UI memo was shared on social media sites like Reddit and Twitter, quickly making waves in a country still grappling with the US Supreme Court’s ruling overturning abortion rights. . The White House press secretary condemned the memo. Some TikTok users – and some major media organizations – have falsely claimed that the university has “banned” birth control for students.

And some of the roughly 900,000 other Idaho employees began to wonder what the laws might mean for them.

At this point, there’s not a lot of direction from elected officials. Rep. Brent Crane, one of the sponsors of the 2021 “No Public Funds for Abortion” law, said laws often need to be fine-tuned after they’re passed to fix problems, and he’s not worried the process could take a year or more.

The Idaho attorney general’s office said questions about the laws should be directed to county prosecutors, who have enforcement functions. Idaho prosecutors are elected from each of the state’s 44 counties, so answers to enforcement questions could change from region to region and from year to year.

Avoiding doing anything that appears to promote workplace abortion can be easy for a farmer appointed to the Idaho Bean Commission or a geologist mapping minerals for the Idaho Geological Survey. But the law is murkier for others who receive public funds.

Could a table discussion about politics in front of a teenage adoptive child be considered “promoting abortion,” especially if part of the dinner was covered by the state’s $584 monthly stipend for adoptive parents? Would an Idaho public television reporter risk prosecution if a viewer says an interview with a Planned Parenthood representative gave the abortion advocate too much airtime?

A spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Health and Wellness was unsure immediately whether the law would apply to foster parents and said they would work to find the answer on Friday.

Bill Manny, executive producer of Idaho Public Television, doesn’t mind being sued as long as his organization continues to do its job well in educating viewers and voters on the issues of the day.

“I can’t imagine anyone writing the law or interpreting the law would consider preventing people in good faith from speaking out about important public policy issues in our state,” Manny said. “That’s what we do with our programs and that’s what we do with our debates, and we think that’s the right way forward.”

But in a recent podcast by Melissa Davlin, senior producer of Idaho Public Television’s Idaho Reports news program, former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones said the law flouts the First Amendment rights and could put public media reporters at risk.

“I think someone might complain that you had a guest who was promoting abortion, so you must have been complicit in that,” Jones said on the podcast. “It’s about saying, ‘Shut the fuck up, don’t talk about these topics,’ and that’s a dangerous thing for the government to do.”

Meanwhile, the University of Idaho is dealing with the backlash.

“It’s not a warrant. In fact, our policies haven’t changed,” Provost Lawrence told the AP on Thursday. “The communication attempted to offer initial guidance on a rather vague law designed to punish state employees.”

The school does not prescribe birth control to students, but for years bowls of condoms have been available for free in some campus bathrooms. These continue to be distributed, but are now aimed at stopping the spread of sexually transmitted diseases rather than preventing pregnancy.

Medical care for students has long been provided by outside healthcare companies. The Vandal Health Clinic, named after the UI mascot, is currently operated by a local hospital system, Gritman Medical Center. Gritman said his services, which include prescribing birth control, would not change.

Lawrence said he did not expect the university’s contract with Gritman to be affected by law. He also didn’t believe that the university’s numerous contracts with research and educational grant partners — including the federal government, which in some cases offers abortions through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — would be affected.

But individual employees could face major consequences if charged, he said.

“The law focuses on and targets the individual, so all state employees paid from state funds are implicated and face very serious consequences – not just felony or misdemeanor charges, but fines, possibly jail time, possibly losing your job and possibly being banned from ever working for the state again,” Lawrence said. “Our advice is to stay in a safer position until we know exactly how this is all going to play out.”


This story has been updated to correct Bill Manny’s title.

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