I can think of three realistic reasons for the University of Idaho’s recent memo about abortion.
Maybe all these reasons played a role in the decision-making, in some relative mix. You decide.
This memo, prompted by the change in Idaho’s strict anti-abortion law, quickly turned into international news, throwing the university into the brightest spotlight it may ever have seen. That probably wasn’t the intent: The spotlight isn’t flattering. It’s a little hard to imagine many people being encouraged to study or teach at the university after reading about it.
It’s been less noted but also true that other Idaho institutions have been moving in the same direction; the UI will not be an outlier.
The September 23 memo said staffers cannot (at least while on duty) do anything to provide or promote abortion, or speak or write in favor of it, or provide a referral, or direct students to sources of information about it outside the university, or provide training for someone to provide the procedure, or contract with anyone who does provide abortions. (Say: Is the medical education exchange at risk?)
Because the law refers to “prevention of conception” the memo said the subject of whether all forms of birth control should be avoided “is unclear and untested in the courts. Since violation is considered a felony, we are advising a conservative approach here, that the university not provide standard birth control itself.” (How long before attorneys and insurers of pharmacies all over Idaho reach the same conclusion?)
Condoms apparently are still okay for distribution as long as they’re used for protection against sexually transmitted disease and not for birth control. (Yes, they actually said this.)
The situation is serious, the memo noted, as consequences that could result from violations include felony conviction (“with imprisonment and fines”), loss of employment and bar on future employment with the state … and who knows what else.
I’m not arguing their analysis is wrong, especially with the comment, “The language of this statute is not a model of clarity.” No kidding.
So why might top university officials (this must have had the awareness, at least, of the president) do this? I can think of three reasons.
First, as a genuine warning about legal liability. This is legitimate enough, as a UI spokesman said, “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.”
Second, as a move to placate the anti-abortion and right wing culture crowd, which has a heavy representation in the Idaho Legislature. The memo may generate some (very mildly) warm feelings in the majority caucuses next session. Those, of course, won't get the university far.
So also maybe, third, arriving as this memo does about a month before the November election, there was some incentive to kick into higher visibility the state of abortion-related law in Idaho - maybe encouraging voters to react against it.
Abortion may be a major political factor this fall. Even the Biden White House weighed in: “...nothing under Idaho law justifies the university’s decision to deny students access to contraception. [Editor’s note: That’s debatable.] But the situation in Idaho speaks to the unacceptable consequences of extreme abortion bans. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in the right to birth control, as well as the right to abortion, without government interference.”
The White House would not have delivered such a strong comment about an internal memo from a remote mid-sized state university, in a small and non-battleground state, unless it saw serious political advantage to be gained.
Idaho Democrats may notice that too.