University asks faculty to ‘remain neutral’ on abortion discussions in class

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As abortion restrictions become law in states across the country, faculty and staff in some of those states face increasing limits on what they can say about reproductive health. In some cases, the vagueness of untested laws coupled with the threat of felony prosecution has scared scholars and even some students out of talking 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 came into force in August. The restrictive advice even ventures into the classroom.

In an email, the university’s general counsel tells employees that Idaho can make it a crime to perform an abortion, promote abortion, counsel people in favor of abortion , to refer someone for abortion, to provide facilities or training to perform abortions, to contract with an abortion provider, or to advertise abortion or “prevention of abortion” services. design “.

The university said employees who interact with students should “act with caution at all times when a discussion turns to 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 states. The sooner employees specify this, the more the email is specified, the better.

The councils acknowledged that Idaho’s law was “not a model of clarity,” particularly when it comes to contraception. To be conservative, the attorney general’s email said the university should not provide birth control.

The guidelines said that University of Idaho employees can always direct students to sources of information outside of the university or to another state, “where students can receive a discussion about everything aspects of the subject and being introduced 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, Washington.)

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

Faculty members at the University of Idaho expressed deep concern about the counseling and what it meant for conversations they might have with their students about abortion.

“It makes us complicit in enabling the rift between religion and state to be broken,” 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, assistant professor of anthropology and Native American studies, discussed the advice with her anthropology class on Monday. Many of her students already knew this, she said, and they had many questions. For example, if a student is also a university employee, can they voice their opinion on abortion when off-campus or on social media? Baumann did not know the answer.

In an interview with The the Chronicle, Baumann said she was in her vehicle, off campus. She was careful not to speak to a reporter about the tips while on college property.

Instructors must remain “neutral” on the subject of abortion in the classroom or risk legal action, the email states.

“I don’t know any professors who stand up there preaching their views on abortion and reproductive rights,” she said. On the contrary, faculty members try to teach students to talk about the subject with respect. “We talk about it in class as it should.”

But now, with the threat of crime looming over their heads, Baumann wondered if faculty members would avoid the subject altogether.

“Nobody wants to take a risk with this,” she said. The concern, she said, is that part of a conversation could be recorded and taken out of context and then broadcast by conservative media. (Last year, a “worried community leader” contacted Boise State University because he believed a white student had been made to cry in class during a discussion about white privilege. L university suspended a series of diversity and ethics classes and investigated, only to find 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 appear to align with state policy. academic freedom policy. Meeuf worked with a group of faculty members and administrators from four-year colleges around the state to update the policy last year. He was concerned that the University of Idaho’s new guidelines requiring professors to express neutrality on the subject of abortion would violate policy.

“The idea of ​​neutrality is an impossible concept to define,” Meeuf said. A faculty member presenting empirical research on reproductive health may feel they remain 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,” Meeuf said.

In an emailed statement, a university spokesperson said the guidance was intended to help employees understand the legal meaning of Idaho’s new law.

“This is a difficult law for many and has real ramifications for individuals in that it calls for individual criminal prosecutions,” she said. The law “provides that no public funds ‘shall be used in any way to…promote abortion.’ The article does not specify what is meant by the promotion of abortion, but it is clear that university employees are paid with public funds. Employees who engage in their work in a way that promotes abortion could be seen as promoting abortion. Although abortion may be discussed as a political issue in the classroom, we strongly recommend that employees in charge of the classroom remain neutral or risk violating this law. We support our students and employees and support academic freedom, but understand the need to follow the laws established by our state. »

Idaho isn’t the only state where people on campus are feeling the chilling effect of state laws banning abortion. In Texas, state law prohibits not only offering an abortion, but also helping someone obtain one. Jacqueline Aguirre, a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso and a member of Frontera Folx, a group that educates the community about reproductive health and rights, said the group no longer talks about abortion.

“We can’t say anything at the risk of being criminalized,” she said.

And in Georgia, two members of Congress wrote a letter to the president of the University of Georgia asking that the university stop funding a research project that collects information on pregnancy centers in crisis, which generally seek to dissuade women from having abortions.

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

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