The University of Idaho has warned its employees not to provide reproductive health counseling, including abortion, to their students or they may risk losing their jobs or criminal prosecution.
According to a memo the university’s general counsel sent to all employees Friday, Idaho law prohibits university employees from promoting, counseling or referring someone for an abortion, and prohibits the institution from dispensing drugs classified as emergency contraception except in cases of rape. The memo was intended to help UI staff understand the complexity of the law.
The memo primarily focused on a law passed in the 2021 session of the Idaho Legislature prohibiting public funds from being used to “procure, counsel in favor, refer to or perform an abortion.” The University of Idaho and other public schools across Idaho are subject to the law since they are state-funded institutions.
The guidance says UI employees cannot dispense birth control to students under the Idaho law.
Standard birth control prescriptions can still be dispensed by workers at student health facilities, according to the memo, which are administered by Moscow Family Health and not the university. Condoms can be provided for prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, the guidance said, but not as a method of birth control, under the law.
Jodi Walker, spokesperson for the University of Idaho, said in an email that the university follows all laws, and the guidance is meant to help employees understand the legal significance and possible ramifications of the law.
“This is a challenging law for many and has real ramifications for individuals in that it calls for individual criminal prosecution,” Walker wrote. “Employees engaging in their course of work in a manner that favors abortion could be deemed as promoting 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. We support our students and employees, as well as academic freedom, but understand the need to work within the laws set out by our state.”
Language of the statute is ‘not a model of clarity,’ University of Idaho memo says
How these laws will be enforced remains unclear, the memo said.
“The language of this statute is not a model of clarity,” the memo said. “… 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 also direct students to sources of information outside of the university and have classroom discussions on topics related to abortion or contraception if it is limited to class subjects and the instructor remains neutral.
Individuals who violate the law face misdemeanor or felony convictions and may be forced to reimburse funds used in violation of the law. They may also be fired and permanently barred from employment with the state.
Planned Parenthood CEO: UI announcement is a canary in the coal mine
“We always knew extremists wouldn’t stop at banning abortion; 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,” said Rebecca Gibron, CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, in a statement. “These attacks on birth control are not theoretical. They are already happening. And the University of Idaho’s new policy is just the latest example of extremists and draconian laws threatening to strip us of all control over their reproductive health care.”
Boise State University and the College of Western Idaho could not be reached for comment about whether the two schools have issued similar guidance. Emily Frandsen, spokesperson for Idaho State University in Pocatello, said the university has not issued a similar memo but follows Idaho’s abortion laws, including the law prohibiting public funding from being used for counseling, promoting or referring individuals for abortion.
The law also prohibits publicly funded facilities from providing abortions or abortion training, and bars them from contracting with abortion providers. Licensed professionals in UI’s Counseling and Testing Center who have privileged conversations around health with students will be addressed separately, the email said, as will medical students in the WWAMI Regional Medical Education Program, which is based in Washington.
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