Updated Oct 2, 2022 - Health

Post-Dobbs birth control fight heads to college campuses

Illustration of a collage of the Supreme Court, birth control pills and a person's silhouette.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Fallout from the demise of Roe v. Wade is forcing college administrators to weigh how reproductive health services offered on campus may conflict with state abortion bans and if their employees could face prosecution.

Why it matters: The University of Idaho this week issued guidance that it could stop offering birth control, citing a section of the Idaho penal code dating back to the 1970s.

  • The potential for other colleges to consider cutbacks is something "we are very concerned about," said Rachel Mack, director of marketing and communications for the American College Health Association.

The big picture: Abortion rights advocates say that state bans are designed to prevent people from not only getting an abortion, but from accessing other reproductive health care services.

  • The language of the laws varies in matters like when life begins, creating a host of legal ambiguities, according to experts.
  • "We're seeing a rush to hunker down and unfortunately cut people off from the information and care they need, likely at the behest of overly cautious legal counsel, in efforts to shield the institutions or their employees from this prospect of criminal prosecution," said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, which advocates for access to abortion care.

Driving the news: The University of Idaho said that due to an "unclear and untested" 1972 anti-abortion law, the university will stop providing access to nearly all types of birth control.

  • The memo sent to university employees cites language that a health provider who "publishes any notice or advertisement of any medicine or means ... for the prevention of conception" is guilty of a felony.
  • "Since violation is considered a felony, we are advising a conservative approach here, that the university not provide standard birth control itself," according to the memo obtained by Axios.
  • The enforceability of the 1972 law remains unclear. But since states can enforce abortion restrictions as they see fit, University of Idaho officials are being cautious with this particular statute — which they call "not a model of clarity."
  • While university employees are not allowed to offer birth control, students can access counseling on contraception at locations that are run by Moscow Family Medicine, a medical network that is not associated with the university.

What they're saying: "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," said Jodi Walker, a spokesperson for the University of Idaho.

  • "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," Walker added.

Yes, but: The university has drawn backlash from abortion rights advocates.

  • "I don't think there's ever a strong enough reason for restricting health care and access to essential health care, which includes abortion and birth control. I understand the fear. But I don't think that any institution should be restricting access in any way," said Tamara Marzouk, director of abortion access at Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that supports abortion rights.

Zoom out: Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe in June, other universities have staked out positions to ensure that their students can access reproductive health care.

  • In Michigan, where a 1931 pre-Roe abortion ban has been struck down, the president of the University of Michigan said, "I will do everything in my power as president to ensure we continue to provide this critically important care."
  • In Ohio, where a ban took effect shortly after Roe's fall, the president of Oberlin College said that the university "will continue to support the reproductive health needs of our students, faculty, and staff, even as the state and federal climate has made this more difficult."

The other side: Abortion foes say that it is not their goal to restrict access to contraceptives.

  • "In regard to the University of Idaho's new policy, we need to know more about their reasoning for the change. No organization I'm aware of ... has called for such a policy change," said Kristi Hamrick, chief media and policy strategist for Students for Life for America, one of the largest anti-abortion organizations in the U.S.

Worth noting: Students could potentially be dissuaded from attending colleges that have similar guidance.

  • "Are you going to be at an institution that is going to put your health and well being at the forefront, or are you going to be at an institution that ... may take as an exceedingly and overly cautious approach that further denies access even to the basic information you might need?," the National Institute for Reproductive Health's Miller told Axios.
  • Lack of reproductive health care will lead to "negative outcomes for higher ed enrollment, retention, and persistence to degree," Mack said.

By the numbers: Young people already face challenges accessing birth control.

  • 88% of young people faced at least one barrier to obtaining a prescription for oral contraceptives, according to a recent poll from Advocates for Youth.
  • Around 55% of respondents said that they faced so many barriers that they were unable to access birth control.

Go deeper: Dems fear red states banning abortion will zero in on birth control next

Editor's note: This story originally published on Sept. 30.

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