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Abortion rights protest in Idaho

A group of teenagers protests the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization on July 2, 2022 in Driggs, Idaho. (Photo: Natalie Behring/Getty Images)

University of Idaho Employees Warned Not to Discuss Abortion or Provide Birth Control

A memo from the school's legal department shows how "Republican politicians are already criminalizing abortion, which has extreme consequences—but they won't stop there," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Julia Conley

New anti-abortion guidance issued to employees at the University of Idaho last week exemplifies how the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade has threatened not only the health of millions of people across the U.S., but also Americans' right to free expression, said one free speech advocacy group late Monday.

"Human rights are interdependent, and the fall of Roe v. Wade sets in motion a dangerous array of consequences that will cascade far beyond the gutting of abortion rights."

The state university's general counsel sent an email to all faculty and staff on Friday warning that under Idaho's abortion ban which went into effect in August, they could face a felony conviction if they are accused of speaking in support of abortion rights, counseling a student on how to get abortion care, or talking about abortion care in a way that is not seen as "neutral on the topic."

"Academic freedom is not a defense to violation of law, and faculty or others in charge of classroom topics and discussion must themselves remain neutral on the topic and cannot conduct or engage in discussions in violation of these prohibitions without risking prosecution," read the memo.

PEN America noted that in the weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe and cleared the way for Republican-led states to ban abortion care, the group warned that the decision could imperil free expression.

"Human rights are interdependent, and the fall of Roe v. Wade sets in motion a dangerous array of consequences that will cascade far beyond the gutting of abortion rights," wrote Nadine Farid Johnson and Summer Lopez, who lead the group's free expression programs, at The Daily Beast. "Moves are being made around the country to curtail abortion-related speech... If enacted, these prohibitions on speech would drastically erode basic rights to free expression. But the stark truth is that even where they don’t become law, the specter of these legislative efforts can curb speech all on its own."

The general counsel at the University of Idaho warned that anyone working for the university who appears to speak in support of abortion could be permanently barred from working for a state institution or agency.

One employee who chose to remain anonymous told The Washington Post that students who serve as resident advisors for their peers will likely be afraid to advise other students if they disclose an unwanted pregnancy.

"I think there's a lot of fear," she told the Post. "I think about the resident hall advisers. This is the kind of advice they give out if students are sexually active and not ready for a family. Now it’s the kind of thing that could get them fired and charged with a felony."

The memo also advises employees that the university should no longer provide birth control to students, even though Idaho's ban does not specifically pertain to contraceptives. It remains unclear, the general counsel said, how the law will be enforced, and "a conservative approach" is being advised by the university to avoid prosecution of staff members or the school itself.

Along with allowing Idaho's abortion ban, which passed in 2020, to go into effect, Dobbs resurrected a 1972 measure which prohibited "advertising medicines or other means for preventing conception."

"The scope of what is meant by 'prevention of conception' and to have 'offered services by notice, advertisement, or otherwise…' is unclear and untested in the courts," the email said regarding Idaho's ban, which prohibits abortion at any point after conception and requires a police report to be filed if a pregnant person wants to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest. "Since violation is considered a felony, we are advising a conservative approach here, that the university not provide standard birth control itself."

University employees can provide condoms "for the purpose of helping prevent the spread of STDs but not for purposes of birth control," said the memo.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on Twitter that the memo shows how "Republican politicians are already criminalizing abortion, which has extreme consequences—but they won't stop there."

Rebecca Gibron, chief executive of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawai'i, Alaska, Indiana, Kentucky, called the university's announcement "an early sign of the larger, coordinated effort to attack birth control access."

"We always knew extremists wouldn't stop at banning abortion; they'd target birth control next," Gibron told the Post. "The University of Idaho's announcement is the canary in the coal mine."

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