University of Idaho warns staff against giving abortion advice

Campus cites 2021 state law in telling all employees not to promote abortion, while state’s other large institution suggests pointing students to outside counsellors

September 28, 2022
Moscow, Idaho, USA –June 13, 2016 Arboretum filled with trees helps to frame university water tower
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The University of Idaho has warned all staff against giving advice on abortion, at the risk of losing their job or imprisonment, saying it feels compelled by the language of a state law enacted last year.

The 11,000-student institution, in a memo from its legal counsel addressed to all employees, says that prohibited acts include promoting abortion, counselling in favour of abortion, or referring anyone for an abortion.

“This is a challenging law for many and has real ramifications for individuals in that it calls for individual criminal prosecution,” a University of Idaho spokesman said in explaining the guidance.

The warning nevertheless drew criticism from both abortion rights advocates and free-speech activists, who accuse the university of violating constitutional rights to expression.

“Faculty members don’t shed their First Amendment rights at the classroom door,” the advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or Fire, said in a statement attributed to a staff attorney, Adam Steinbaugh.

The issue of abortion regained political prominence across the US with this summer’s Supreme Court ruling overturning the constitutional right to abortion that the nation’s top court established in 1973.

That decision has had an especially major impact on higher education, given that traditional students are in the age group where abortion is most common.

Institutions in conservative states such as Idaho, that have moved to tighten abortion rights to near or at allowable limits, have faced predictions they will lose students and top academics. The Supreme Court ruling has also challenged institutions – especially those providing medical training – to determine how they now must restrict their teaching and research.

The University of Idaho attributed its new guidance primarily to a 2021 state law that prohibits public funds – covering its state universities – being used to “procure, counsel in favour, refer to or perform an abortion”. It made no reference to the subsequent US Supreme Court ruling or the reason for the timing of the guidance.

The state’s other large research institution, Boise State University, also has issued guidance on the 2021 state law that notes the law’s language against such actions as promoting abortion or referring anyone for an abortion, and the potential penalties. Both the University of Idaho and Boise State University guidance also emphasise uncertainties about what exactly is allowed and prohibited under state law.

But the University of Idaho, led by Scott Green, a career business executive with no previous experience in higher education, took a more cautious approach in some areas than that of Boise State, which is headed by a career academic who has put a priority on navigating the state’s partisan scepticism toward colleges and universities.

The University of Idaho suggested that any employees who “regularly interact with students in any fashion as part of their employment” should “proceed cautiously at any time that a discussion moves in the direction of reproductive health, including abortion”. The Boise State University language, by contrast, suggests that “the best solution is to refer the student to the university’s licensed counsellors and medical providers or to outside counsellors”.

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