MOSCOW, Idaho — Mackenzie Davidson grew up in a Mormon household and sheepishly admits she knew little about pregnancy.
“This is embarrassing,” she said, sitting outside a café along a street thronged with students in this college town. “But I didn’t know that you had to have sex to have kids until I was 13 or 14.”
She’s a writer for the University of Idaho student newspaper, The Argonaut, and was asked recently to report on a new law. It’s now a crime to help a teen under 18 leave the state for an abortion or obtain medication abortion pills without parental consent — including when the girl has been sexually assaulted or raped by a family member or parent. Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, in signing the bill, wrote that the law does not “limit an adult woman from obtaining an abortion in another state.”
Davidson, 19, reached out to interview state Rep. Barbara Ehardt, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, who touted her “Christian-based” attitude during her campaign.
“She kept saying that it was about parental rights,” Davidson said. But “the thing that really caught my attention was the fact that they were calling it ‘abortion trafficking.’”
The law creates a crime of “abortion trafficking” and criminalizes the “recruiting, harboring, or transporting” of minors without parental consent. In a floor speech before the Idaho Legislature voted on the bill, Ehardt said, “We are only looking to protect our children.”
Idaho’s “teen travel ban,” as it’s known here, took effect May 5, nearly 11 months after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion. Any adult, including an aunt, grandparent, or sibling, convicted of violating the criminal statute faces up to five years in prison. Under a separate state law, family members of the pregnant minor and the sexual partner involved can sue any health care provider who helped terminate the pregnancy for financial damages.
“If you’re successful, you’re guaranteed $20,000 minimum, and that’s per claim per relative,” said Kelly O’Neill, an Idaho litigation attorney for Legal Voice, a progressive nonprofit.
“Idaho has a lot of big families,” she added.
Under the new law, even when a parent gives consent, the person accompanying the minor would need to provide an “affirmative defense” proving they were acting with the permission of a parent of the teen.
“You could still be charged, arrested, perhaps even have to go all the way to a jury trial and prove in a courtroom that your sister gave you permission,” O’Neill said.
Legal experts say Idaho’s travel ban, based on a model bill written by National Right to Life, one of the country’s largest anti-abortion groups, is designed to sidestep implied constitutional protections for interstate travel. The law targets travel assistance within and up to the state’s border, effectively criminalizing medical care legally obtained in neighboring states.
“This is one of the next frontiers of abortion litigation,” said David S. Cohen, a constitutional law professor at Drexel University. “They’re clearly pushing this kind of law with other states.”
In response to potential legal threats, on April 27, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, signed a series of bills barring law enforcement from cooperating with other states’ abortion investigations. Those laws shield medical providers from lawsuits and protect their medical licenses from being revoked.
But in communities like Spokane, Washington, just 20 miles from the Idaho border, there is a sense of unease.
“We have staff who live in Idaho who commute,” said Karl Eastlund, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho. “It’s one big economic region, when you think of the border communities here.”
When asked if he was concerned that medical staff members living in Idaho could be criminally charged for the abortion care they provide every day, he said, “We have told our providers we will handle all of your legal fees and we’ll provide lawyers to help you sort out anything that happens.”
He added, “It’s something we think about a lot.”
After Sunday morning Mass at St. Augustine’s Catholic Center in Moscow, Ryan Alexander tended to his 17-month-old daughter, Penelope, as she toddled about the church courtyard. Alexander, 25, a married law student at the university here, said ending any pregnancy violates his Catholic beliefs.
He has read the text of the bill, he said, “and the way it’s written is actually incredibly prudent.” No adult, he said, can act in place of a parent.
“That’s just kidnapping, by any means, if you take a girl away from her parents when she’s a minor and her parents have authority over her,” he said.
Alexander said he understands that some teenage girls are sexually abused at home or have dysfunctional relationships with their parents. Still, he supports the law.
“When we look at situations like that, my heart goes out to them. What can I do but pray from a distance and think, how can that be better?” he said. But “two wrongs do not make a right.”
Idaho patients, including teenagers, have long crossed into Washington state to legally end their pregnancies. Eastlund said fewer than 5% of the clinics’ patients who come for abortion care are minors.
Most of those patients, he said, do involve their parents in the process, even though parental consent is not mandatory in Washington. Those who don’t, Eastlund said, have good reason not to. Some are in dangerous, abusive situations in which disclosing a pregnancy could put them at risk of further harm.
“We’re talking about sexual abuse and incest,” said Eastlund, sitting upstairs at the clinic in Spokane. “It’s not stuff people want to talk about, but, unfortunately, it’s more common than people think.”
On the shores of Lake Pend Oreille, in Sandpoint, Idaho, Jen Jackson Quintano said she wants her daughter, Sylvia, 8, to have trusted adults around whom she can turn to when she’s a teenager.
“I think back to my teenage years when I was in high school, I had a boyfriend that I loved, and I was sexually active,” she said. At the time she thought, “If I get pregnant, I would rather just die, just end it, than have to figure this out and tell my parents.”
Quintano said that while growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, she was taught that sex, contraception, and abortion were shameful, and she is raising her daughter under a different set of beliefs.
“Shame as a woman — it’s a powerful form of control, and I don’t want her to walk that path of shame,” Quintano said. “I want her to feel comfortable in her body.”
Idaho’s teen abortion travel ban and the financial rewards for reporting citizens who obtain abortions are already dividing the tightknit fabric of Sandpoint’s community, she said.
“We don’t know who to trust,” Quintano said. “We don’t know who we can talk to.”
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