A digital billboard truck advertising reproductive health care options traveled around Moscow and parked in front of the University of Idaho Administration Building on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022. The organization ran the ads in Moscow after the university released a memo to staff and employees reminding them of an Idaho law that UI says prohibits state employees from promoting birth control and abortion to prevent pregnancy. (Courtesy of Mayday Health)
Digital billboards are traveling around Moscow for the next week with various messages from a national nonprofit about reproductive health.
“Be conservative. Use birth control.”
“Pregnant? You still have a choice.”
“They don’t want you to know this. You can still get abortion pills by mail.”
One particular advertisement displays a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the message, “Moscow: It’s a slippery slope,” referencing the capital city of Russia.
As fallout from a University of Idaho memo about abortion continues with national coverage, a response from the White House and reports of angry faculty members, Mayday Health is driving billboards around the college town for the next week to let students and residents know they can still access abortion pills, emergency contraception and birth control.
The university’s general counsel sent the memo to all employees on Sept. 23. It focused on a law passed in the 2021 session of the Idaho Legislature called the No Public Funds for Abortion Act. The University of Idaho and other public schools across Idaho are subject to the law since they are state-funded institutions.
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The memo advised all employees to comply by not promoting, counseling or referring someone for an abortion, and went a step further to say the university also cannot dispense contraception, with the exception of condoms, which can be provided to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Standard birth control prescriptions can still be dispensed by workers at student health facilities, according to the memo, which are administered by Moscow Family Health and not the university.
Organization says it is not trying to antagonize University of Idaho
Mayday Health is a nonprofit health education organization with a website that provides information on obtaining abortion pills by mail and points people to medical and legal helplines, particularly if the individual lives in a state with abortion bans, which includes Idaho.
The organization formed in May in New York on the day the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked to Politico. Since then, about 35 million people have interacted with Mayday Health content, according to the organization’s records.
The organization does not prescribe or dispense any medication, said co-founder Sam Koppelman. It only serves as an educational resource to ensure people know abortion pills are available in all 50 states and help people make their own decision, he said.
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Idaho is only the second state where the organization has launched a digital billboard campaign — Koppelman said the first was in Jackson, Mississippi, where the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court case originated.
“We try to really stay on top of all encroachments on abortion rights, and also on the right to free speech about reproductive health, so we saw (the memo) basically right away and have been keeping an eye on it in the days since,” Koppelman said.
Kaori Sueyoshi, head of strategy at Mayday, said the billboards are one of the most visible methods of advertising, but they will also deploy Google, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook advertisements to reach more people.
“Our hope is that in this moment, where this type of law is meant to chill free speech around health care options, we want to be able to stand up and fight back for what we know is right,” Sueyoshi said.
The organization’s website does not track any data with individual identifying information, Sueyoshi said, and it includes a “quick exit” button at the top for a user’s personal security.
Sueyoshi said the intent is not to antagonize the University of Idaho, who she said is only trying to protect students and staff under current laws. Individuals who violate the law face misdemeanor or felony convictions and may be forced to reimburse funds used in violation of the law. They may also be fired and permanently barred from employment with the state.
“Our strategy is, we believe this is a free speech area and we want students and staff and residents not to feel fear around getting this information that we feel they deserve to have,” she said.
Student government drafts resolution telling Idaho Legislature to fix free speech portions of law
The Associated Students of the University of Idaho, the student body government organization, drafted a resolution this week stating opposition to the guidance in the memo and calling for the Idaho Legislature to repeal sections of the No Public Funds for Abortion Act that are “related to speech, counseling, referrals, and use of privately paid tuition and fees.”
Martha Smith, pro tempore senator of ASUI, said the resolution is not aimed at the university or its general counsel, but specifically at the Legislature. The student government members will vote on the resolution at their next meeting on Oct. 5.
“I see myself as an advocate in this situation because I’m not a school employee, and I think a lot of the professors are very gun-shy on what they’re allowed to say right now,” Smith said. “Almost every single professor I’ve talked to has said, ‘Oh, well, I saw that memo.’ There’s not a lot of dialogue coming from professors right now.”
As she has spoken with students who are in favor of abortion rights and those who are anti-abortion, Smith said there are concerns on both sides about not being able to discuss the subject in class without fear of consequences.
“The topic of abortion does come up, and the idea that professors have to remain neutral on it is an impossible ask in my opinion, because — find one person who’s neutral about abortion,” she said.
Smith told the Sun she hadn’t seen the digital billboards as of Friday afternoon but said she’s glad to know it’s happening.
“Anything that’s going to allow students to understand what’s legally within the bounds of what they need should be welcomed and encouraged on a college campus,” Smith said.
This story was originally produced by the Idaho Capital Sun which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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