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College Students in Idaho Sound Off Against Their Universities’ Abortion Gag Order

Photo credit: John Francis - Getty Images
Photo credit: John Francis - Getty Images

It’s incredibly easy to miss an email. Especially when you’re a busy college student juggling classes and extracurriculars and, oh yeah, a social life. Especially when it’s approximately the 57th email your university has sent out in the past month. And especially when the email just looks like guidance for school staff. Maybe the word “abortion” in the subject line wouldn’t even catch your eye.

If you follow the news, you’re probably already aware that at the University of Idaho, one such email sent out on September 23 derailed students’ lives overnight. According to an official university email obtained by Cosmopolitan (below), U of I has released a new set of rules and recommendations for campus staff regarding abortion and emergency contraception. To avoid the risk of prosecution in a post-Roe world, university employees have been told not to help students seek out an abortion—or even mention emergency contraception or provide condoms with the intention of preventing a pregnancy. Professors have even been told to steer clear of or shut down classroom discussions about the prevention and termination of pregnancies. The details are fuzzy, but the message is clear: Avoid, avoid, avoid, even if it’s relevant to the course curriculum, even if a student is seeking medical help or just staying safe.

Students at the University of Idaho aren’t the only ones in the state who are experiencing a monumental shift in their personal freedoms. At schools like Boise State University, Idaho’s archaic legislation also looms large, no longer with the protections afforded by Roe v. Wade. At this point, many Idahoans aren’t totally sure what they are or aren’t allowed to say and do. But one thing is certain: People are scared.

In spite of their nerves and concerns for the future, Idaho college students aren’t taking this sitting down. I spoke with several of them to find out where their heads are at and what they plan to do next.

“Health care shouldn’t be political.”

“I get news notifications on my phone, so I think I woke up to it. My first thought was, Well, doesn’t that violate the right to free speech? I was surprised and really confused.

“I’m the president of Young Democrats at Boise State, and with the upcoming election, I work in state politics as well. I talk to a lot of people—I need to communicate with politicians, and with my club members, often. Everyone in Boise Young Democrats was pretty annoyed or mad when the birth control thing popped up in the news. It’s really frustrating. A lot of them are worried for the future. I know several people who have already made appointments to get IUDs, and other long-term options, in case they can’t keep taking the pill or the patch. People are anxious about whether or not they’re gonna be protected.

“I actually have a very close friend who did get pregnant, and she is now having to—I don’t know how much I can say, but she will be terminating the pregnancy as soon as possible. But it is not legal for her. And she is scared because she doesn’t want to catch a felony. She is only 17 years old. Realistically, abortion bans are not going to stop abortion. I’m seeing it in my own personal life. Of course, everyone knows that. Our state legislators know that, but they don’t care. I don’t think this should be a partisan issue, because health care should not be political. I don’t think this is what people want at all, I really don’t.

“To Idaho voters: Please vote for pro-choice candidates. David Roth is pro-choice. Kaylee Peterson is pro-choice. Wendy Norman is pro-choice. I could name a lot more. A lot of our big-ticket candidates as well as the smaller ones.

“Check if your district representatives are pro-choice. Because this is not an issue that’s just going to go away if you don’t vote. There’s typically a lower voter turnout during midterm elections, so it’s critical, during the midterms especially, that we show them this is not acceptable. It’s not easy. But if you are in another state and you have restricted access to health care, especially reproductive health care, you are not alone. There is hope to fix this. What really matters is showing up to the polls and voting the wrong people out of office.” —Taylor, 21, senior, political science major, Boise State University

“As for how I’m feeling: I’m f*cking pissed.”

“I personally didn’t predict that this would happen, after the Dobbs decision was leaked or when it became law. But still, the email didn’t freak me out as much as it freaked out a lot of other people, who just had no idea it was coming. I work at the Women’s Center at my school, so I knew a lot beforehand. HB 220 was already out, and that’s legislation about public funds for abortion, so we already couldn’t talk about everything.

A lot of people are misinformed and think that our state laws don’t say anything about birth control. But everything the University of Idaho put out in that email goes along with real laws. Idaho Statute 18-603 invokes prevention of conception as one of the things we can’t talk about, and that includes birth control. They’re also very vague on purpose so that it covers everything. That’s why the University of Idaho put out the new guidelines.

“As for how I’m feeling: I’m fucking pissed. After we talked through the situation at work, I immediately started reading everything I could and asking my supervisor so many questions to clarify what I could and couldn’t do because it’s all so vague. The new guidance is not clear, and the line between when I’m a student and when I’m an employee is also confusing.

“The new policy borders on breaching academic freedom and our ability to speak freely in class because now professors are supposed to shut down conversations on certain subjects. I’m majoring in sociology and minoring in women, gender, and sexuality, so all of my professors are very emotional about everything that’s happening. They’re very invested in this and very affected by it because now we can’t talk about half the things that are actually going on. A lot of my professors are scared. So I’m missing out on education because my professors don’t know what to do or what to say. They’re not getting clarification from anyone.

“I think everyone agrees that it is the state of Idaho’s fault. But people are still pointing fingers at the University of Idaho because that’s what they’re being told. But all universities and all schools have to do this, not just us. The Women’s Center employees are hoping to plan a protest to help open up the conversation and better inform students. We want to do things to fix Idaho legislation, not just express anger toward our school. Bans Off Moscow is also hosting a protest in town, and we’re all gonna go to that too. We have to blame the Idaho legislature and hold them accountable. Because it’s their fault that our rights are being taken away.” Jennica, 20, junior, sociology and gender studies major, University of Idaho

“Of course I was disappointed, but honestly? I was laughing at how ridiculous it was.”

“My first reaction was to try to get more clarification. But it didn’t shock me, you know? Being an Idaho resident for my entire life, I know how it is. I wasn’t shocked. Of course I was disappointed, but honestly? I think I laughed. I was laughing at how ridiculous it was.

“Especially the part about how condoms could be passed out by the university—but only for STIs. I thought that part was especially ridiculous. Immediately after reading the email, I sent a synopsis to Ann and Sarah at Bans Off Moscow. They wanted me to send the full email, so I converted it to a PDF and I sent it to Sarah. Then I sent it to some news organizations. And that kind of freaked me out a little bit because I’m usually a big rule-follower. Hence my being anonymous here—I’m nervous. When I shared the email, I felt like I was doing something wrong. But I know I wasn’t the only person to leak the email and get it out there, if ‘leak’ is even the right word.

“I also looked for clarification on actual Idaho law. I wanted to find out if this was something the university really needed to do or just the school itself. Some members of Bans Off Moscow have pointed out that these laws are largely unchallenged, especially the ones from the 1970s. Newer abortion laws have been left intentionally vague. It’s like they’re just waiting to be challenged.

“One student who works at our student newspaper told me, ‘We’re trying to talk about this, but no staff will talk to us. Everyone’s worried about their jobs.’ I thought that was particularly interesting because I feel like there’s a lot of staff on campus who would normally be open to talking about things. But it’s scary.” Anonymous, 20, junior, journalism major, University of Idaho

“Idaho clearly isn’t prioritizing women’s dreams or our hopes and ambitions in the same way it’s prioritizing men’s.”

“My friends and I found out about the gag order pretty recently. We were trying to plan an event for our club, the Boise University Young Democrats, where we would introduce our members to pro-choice candidates. Our vice president said she was worried about registering the event because we might get in trouble.

“This has shaken our world, I won’t lie. As a Young Democrats club, we obviously do a lot of things that are controversial in Idaho. That includes sharing sexual health resources. We try to make sure that our club, more than anything, is a safe space for people to get the resources and information they need. But with these new policies in place, we have to worry about what our university is going to think and what our state is going to think about us even helping our own members. And if people were to find out, then criminal penalties could be a possibility. So it is scary.

“Ultimately, the new policies are really a slap in the face. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, we knew shit was going to hit the fan for us in Idaho. We knew our state didn’t have our backs. But it’s a different feeling when your university is against you. When you’re a woman trying to become a scholar, when you’re an academic and your university is telling you that they would rather you be a mother—it’s just extremely disappointing. It seems like as women, it’s not enough for us to want to succeed academically. Boise would rather see us just submit to traditional roles.

“From an academic standpoint, this felt really alarming because how much more specific is it gonna go? How much more of a slippery slope is it gonna be? Soon, you’re not gonna be able to text your friend over the phone, ‘Hey, Planned Parenthood is on this street,’ without Idaho’s state government tracking you. It’s grotesque. Idaho schools claiming that they’re prioritizing academia and then passing these sorts of under-the-table regulations…it just feels slimy, and it is discriminatory against women.

“I would tell any Idahoan who thinks that Idaho is doing right by women to look at how the state is treating women who want to excel academically and then rethink that position. Because Idaho clearly isn’t prioritizing women’s dreams and our hopes and our ambitions at all in the same way it’s prioritizing men’s. To the rest of the country, I would say: Use Idaho as an example. Don’t let your government get this way. We are seriously trying to unseat these extremist conservatives, but it will take us a long time. I would advise anybody who sees their state government going down this route to act far faster than we have.” Maddy, 21, junior, political science major, Boise State University

“I haven’t met one student who is happy about what’s happened.”

“I was in my art studio at school when I learned about the new guidance. Within an hour, it exploded all over my feed. I kind of turned to my classmates like, ‘Uh, what the hell is this?’ They were extremely upset. I honestly haven’t met one student who is happy about what’s happened. That might be because I’m an art student—we’re a blue dot in a red state. But basically, every single person I know is extremely upset and they feel violated. Even my RAs on campus are upset about it.

“The guidance went out to teachers, but it also covers students employed by the University of Idaho. So we’re talking about library assistants, we’re talking about RAs. Literal college students who are now unable to speak to their peers about abortion access. Going to college, really, is about expanding your perspective and your view of the world. It’s about learning from other people. I think limitations like this one are inherently against the whole point of college. It leads to tiptoeing and will probably lead to the absence of any conversation at all. It’s going to stop the conversation, period. Because they’ve instilled fear in these teachers, who have to worry about their jobs and their salaries.

“Of course, there wasn’t an all-out immediate ban because that would cause chaos and uproar. We’re seeing this slow chipping-away at female rights. This is the start of it, basically, what you’re seeing with University of Idaho. I think our authority figures are saying, ‘If we take this away from you, there’s no real way you can get it back.’ Government leaders can make us feel like we don’t have any power, when in reality, we do. We are the people that put them in charge. You can’t let that feeling of hopelessness stop you from trying to create change.

“When the guidance came out, I started doing research. I found out that the reason the University of Idaho put this gag order on teachers is because of trigger laws that have gone into effect. The Dobbs decision reactivated an old Idaho law from 1972, basically stating that people who aren’t physicians that advise others on abortion or birth control can face felony charges. So it’s frustrating because I understand why the University of Idaho lawyers are doing this. I don’t want to completely throw hate on them. Because I understand that they’re trying to cover their own asses. But at the same time, it’s the fact that they’re falling into it that’s so disappointing, especially in a place of higher education.

“I think this is all really sad because to me, Idaho is a beautiful state and there are beautiful people in it. People who would give you the clothes off their back. There’s a lot of hate being thrown at Idaho right now, at U of I specifically. But I want everyone to realize that even though there are villainous people with bad intentions speaking out louder than the rest of us, so many of us are good people. We care about women, we care about other people, and we want to help, but we’re stuck in a state with an overall bad view.” Kimberly, 21, senior, studio art major, University of Idaho

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