‘It’s Making Us Accomplices’: A University Tells Faculty to ‘Remain Neutral’ on Abortion in Class

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As abortion restrictions become law in states across the country, faculty members and staff in some of those states face increasing limits on what they can say about reproductive health. In some cases, the vagueness of the untested laws paired with the threat of felony prosecution have made scholars and even some students afraid to talk about what was only recently a constitutional right.

On Friday, the University of Idaho sent its employees guidance on what they can and cannot say about abortion under a statewide ban that went into effect in August. The restrictive guidance even ventures into the classroom.

In an email, the university’s general counsel told employees that Idaho may consider it a felony to perform an abortion, promote abortion, counsel people in favor of abortion, refer someone for abortion, provide facilities or training for performing abortions, contract with an abortion provider, or advertise services for abortion or “the prevention of conception.”

The university said that employees who interact with students should “proceed cautiously at any time that a discussion moves in the direction of reproductive health, including abortion.” In conversations with students about reproductive rights, university employees should say that they are prohibited from promoting abortion in any way, the email said. The earlier employees make that clear, the email specified, the better.

The guidance acknowledged that the Idaho law was “not a model of clarity,” particularly with regards to contraception. To be conservative, the general counsel’s email said, the university should not provide birth control.

The guidance said that University of Idaho employees may still direct students to sources of information outside the university or to another state, “where students can receive a discussion of all aspects of the topic and be presented with all alternatives legally available to them.” But in doing so, “university employees must remain neutral on the subject of abortion.” (There is a Planned Parenthood facility less than 10 miles from the University of Idaho in Pullman, Wash.)

The university can also provide condoms, so long as they are “for the purpose of helping prevent the spread of STDs” and not for birth control. Employees may have classroom discussions “on topics related to abortion or contraception,” but they must be “limited to discussions and topics relevant to the class subject.” Instructors must remain “neutral” on the topic of abortion in class or risk prosecution, the email said.

University of Idaho faculty members expressed deep concern about the guidance and what it meant about conversations they might have with their students about abortion.

“It’s making us accomplices to allowing the breaching of the divide between religion and state,” said Leontina Hormel, a sociology professor at the University of Idaho. She said the new rules run counter to her obligation to help students think critically about important topics.

Dianne Baumann, an assistant professor of anthropology and American Indian studies, discussed the guidance with her anthropology class on Monday. Many of her students already knew about it, she said, and they had lots of questions. For example, if a student is also a university employee, can they make their opinions about abortion known when they’re off campus or on social media? Baumann did not know the answer.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Baumann made clear she was in her vehicle, off campus. She was careful not to talk to a reporter about the guidance while on university property.

Instructors must remain “neutral” on the topic of abortion in class or risk prosecution, the email said.

“I don’t know professors that are standing up there, preaching their opinions on abortion and reproductive rights,” she said. Rather, faculty members are trying to teach students to talk about the topic respectfully. “It’s talked about in classes as it should be.”

But now, with the threat of a felony hanging over their heads, Baumann wondered if faculty members would avoid the topic entirely.

“No one wants to take a chance with that,” she said. The concern, she said, is that part of a conversation could be recorded and taken out of context, then broadcasted by conservative media. (Last year, a “concerned community leader” contacted Boise State University because he believed a white student there was made to cry in class during a discussion about white privilege. The university suspended a series of diversity and ethics courses and investigated, only to find that the incident did not take place as alleged.)

Russell Meeuf, a journalism and mass-media professor, was concerned about the University of Idaho’s guidance because it did not seem to align with the state’s academic-freedom policy. Meeuf worked with a group of faculty members and administrators from four-year colleges in the state to update the policy last year. He worried that the University of Idaho’s new guidance specifying that professors express neutrality on the topic of abortion ran counter to the policy.

“The idea of neutrality is an impossible-to-define concept,” Meeuf said. A faculty member presenting empirical research on reproductive health may feel they are remaining neutral, while a student who is against all abortions may not see it that way. “If it’s not clear where neutrality starts and stops, then they might be afraid to engage in those discussions at all,” Meeuf said.

In an emailed statement, a university spokesperson said the guidance was meant to help employees understand the legal significance of the new Idaho law.

“This is a challenging law for many and has real ramifications for individuals in that it calls for individual criminal prosecution,” she said. The law “states that no public funds ‘shall be used in any way to … promote abortion.’ The section does not specify what is meant by promoting abortion, however, it is clear that university employees are paid with public funds. 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.”

Idaho is not the only state where people on campus feel the chilling effect of state laws banning abortion. In Texas, state law prohibits not just providing an abortion, but helping someone get one. Jacqueline Aguirre, a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso and a member Frontera Folx, a group that educates the community about reproductive health and rights, said that the group is no longer talking about abortion.

“We cannot say a thing at the risk of being criminalized,” she said.

And in Georgia, two congressmen wrote a letter to the University of Georgia’s president asking that the university stop funding a research project that collects information about crisis-pregnancy centers, which generally seek to dissuade women from getting abortions.

The University of Idaho told employees that the administration will continue trying to gather and share information about the new legal landscape. How these laws will be enforced by the state, the email said, remains to be seen.


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