In Idaho, taking a minor out of state for an abortion is now a crime: ‘abortion trafficking’

Moscow, Idaho • Mackenzie Davidson grew up in a Mormon household and embarrassed admits she knew little about pregnancy.

“It’s embarrassing,” she said, sitting outside a café on a student-filled street in this college town. “But I didn’t know until I was 13 or 14 that you have to have sex to have children.”

She is a writer for the University of Idaho’s student newspaper, The Argonaut, and was recently asked to report on a new law. It is now a crime to help a teen under 18 leave the state for an abortion or obtain abortion pills without parental consent — even if the girl has been sexually abused or raped by a family member or parent. Gov. Brad Little, a Republican, wrote when signing the bill that the law “does not prevent an adult woman from having an abortion in another state.”

Davidson, 19, turned down an interview with Rep. Barbara Ehardt, a Republican co-supporter of the bill, who touted her “Christian” stance during her campaign.

“She kept saying it was about parenting rights,” Davidson said. But “what really got my attention was the fact that they called it ‘the abortion trade.'”

The law creates a crime of “abortion trafficking” and criminalizes the “recruitment, placement or promotion” of minors without parental consent. In a speech ahead of the Idaho legislature’s vote on the bill, Ehardt said, “We just want to protect our children.”

Idaho’s “teen travel ban,” as it’s called here, went into effect on May 5, nearly 11 months after the US Supreme Court abolished the constitutional right to abortion. Any adult, including an aunt, grandparent or sibling, convicted of violating the Criminal Code 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 contributed to the abortion for monetary damages.

“If you’re successful, you’re guaranteed a minimum of $20,000 per claim and per dependent,” said Kelly O’Neill, Idaho litigation attorney at Legal Voice, a progressive nonprofit.

“Idaho has a lot of big families,” she added.

Under the new law, even if a parent gives consent, the person accompanying the minor would have to produce a “positive defense” proving they acted with the permission of one of the teenager’s parents.

“You could still be charged or arrested, you may even have to go as far as a jury trial and prove in court that your sister gave you permission,” O’Neill said.

Legal experts say the Idaho travel ban, based on a model law by National Right to Life, one of the country’s largest anti-abortion groups, aims to circumvent implicit constitutional protections for interstate travel. The law targets travel assistance within and to the state border and effectively criminalizes medical care that is legally obtained in neighboring states.

“This is one of the next challenges in abortion disputes,” said David S. Cohen, professor of constitutional law at Drexel University. “They are clearly moving forward with this type of legislation in concert with other states.”

In response to potential legal threats, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Democrat, signed into law a series of bills on April 27 barring law enforcement agencies from cooperating with other states’ abortion investigations. These laws protect 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 employees who live and commute in Idaho,” said Karl Eastlund, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho. “It’s a big economic region considering the border communities here.”

When asked if he was concerned Idaho-based medical workers could be prosecuted for the abortion care they provide every day, he said, “We have notified our providers that we will cover all of your legal fees and have attorneys available to you ask.” will help you clarify everything that is happening.”

He added, “We think about that a lot.”

After Sunday morning mass at the St. Augustine Catholic Center in Moscow, Ryan Alexander tended to his 17-month-old daughter Penelope, who was staggering in the church courtyard. Alexander, 25, a married law student at the university here, said terminating a pregnancy went against his Catholic faith.

He’s read the text of the law, he said, “and the way it’s written is actually incredibly thoughtful.” No adult can take the place of a parent, he said.

“It’s definitely just kidnapping 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. Nonetheless, he supports the law.

“When we look at situations like this, I feel compassion for them. What else can I do but pray from afar and think: How can this be better?” he said. But “two mistakes don’t make a right.”

Patients from Idaho, including teenagers, have long traveled to Washington state to legally terminate their pregnancies there. Eastlund said less than 5% of patients who come to the clinics for abortion treatment are minors.

Most of these patients, he said, involve their parents in the process, although parental consent is not mandatory in Washington. Those who don’t, Eastlund said, have good reasons not to. Some are in dangerous, abusive situations where disclosure of a pregnancy could put them at risk of further harm.

“We’re talking about sexual abuse and incest,” said Eastlund, who was upstairs at the Spokane clinic. “It’s not something people want to talk about, but unfortunately it’s more common than you might think.”

On the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho, Jen Jackson Quintano said she wishes her daughter Sylvia, 8, had trusted adults to turn to as 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 do get pregnant, I’d rather just die, just end it, than find out and have to tell my parents.”

Quintano said growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, she was taught that sex, contraception and abortion were shameful and 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 go down that path of shame,” Quintano said. “I want her to be comfortable in her body.”

Idaho’s travel ban on teenage abortions and financial rewards for reporting citizens who have abortions are already dividing the tight-knit fabric of the Sandpoint community, she said.

“We don’t know who to trust,” Quintano said. “We don’t know who to talk to.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of the core operating programs of KFF – an independent source for health policy research, surveys and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

Justin Scaccy

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