Idaho Seeks to Redefine Assisting a Pregnant Minor to Obtain an Abortion as Human Trafficking

Republican lawmakers in Idaho seek to extend the reach of the state’s abortion ban beyond its borders, in order to force teens to become parents against their will.

A group of teenagers protests the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on July 2, 2022, on the main street in Driggs, Idaho. On Aug. 25, 2022, Idaho began enforcing its trigger ban, which prohibits abortion at all stages of pregnancy. (Natalie Behring / Getty Images)

As if teens seeking to terminate a pregnancy in this bleak post-Roe landscape do not have enough obstacles to contend with, particularly in abortion-hostile states, state Reps. Barbara Ehardt and Kevin Andrus, both Republican lawmakers from Idaho, recently introduced House Bill 98, which would make it a crime to take a teen out of state for an abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian.

On Tuesday, the Idaho House voted 57-12 to advance the measure.

Insisting this move is necessary in order to protect teens from being whisked across state lines by “adult males who seek to conceal the consequences of their sexual conduct by persuading the girls to obtain secret abortions,” proponents ignore the fact that teens who cannot turn to their parents for support have been able to ‘bypass’ their involvement by seeking court authorization for an abortion.

This is not to endorse what is typically an overwhelming, frightening and stigmatizing experience, but simply to point out that the right of teens to obtain an abortion without the knowledge or involvement of their parents has been constitutionally protected—at least until now. Studies, including my own, make clear that teens go to court because they cannot involve their parents for a myriad of reasons, such as abuse, family trauma and fears of irreparably damaging fragile relationships—not because they have been coerced to evade parents by a sexual predator.

Idaho’s near total ban on abortion in tandem with its civil enforcement provision permitting relatives of a ‘preborn child’ to seek damages from an abortion provider was apparently not draconian enough to satisfy Ehardt’s commitment to the state’s ‘unborn residents.’ Seeking to plug what is sometimes derisively referred to as a circumvention or evasion loophole in the law, H.B. 98 would add the “recruiting, harboring, or transporting a pregnant minor” out of state to procure a ‘criminal’ abortion without the consent of a parent or guardian to the definition of human trafficking.

Further tightening the grip of the law around the body of pregnant teens, H.B. 98 also would add providing an “abortion-inducing drug” to a teen within the state to the definition of criminal trafficking. 

Most likely hoping to avoid the post-Dobbs ‘fiasco’ of prosecutors who signed a joint statement pledging not to use their “offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive healthcare and to exercise [their] well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide or support abortion,” H.B. 98 takes the added precaution of vesting the state’s attorney general with the authority to prosecute so-called abortion traffickers if prosecuting attorneys refuse to do so. 

This is undoubtedly a task that Raúl Labrador, the state’s current AG who has not been shy about voicing his strong anti-abortion position, would relish.

In his unsuccessful 2018 run for governor, Labrador proclaimed that the “unborn child is still a child—made in the image of god, who will one day have the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us. The fact that life begins at conception might be an uncomfortable truth for some. But it’s a truth, all the same.”

More recently, Labrador has condemned the FDA for loosening restrictions on medication abortion, proudly declaring that in Idaho, in stark contrast to this “brazen federal grab that endangers women’s health,” we “protect women and the unborn.”

Teens “already face additional hurdles to accessing abortion care…such as finding transportation to an abortion provider, paying for the services and obtaining time off from school,” wrote Maya Manian in Ms.—burdens that fall hardest on populations at “higher risk of unintended pregnancy—including Black, Hispanic or Indigenous teens; teens who are bisexual, teens who live in low-income families and teens who live in the South—due to the systemic hardships undergirding health disparities more broadly in the United States.”

Greatly upping the ante, Idaho is now cruelly seeking to extend the reach of its state abortion ban beyond its borders in order to force teens to become parents against their will.

Extending the reach of restrictive abortion laws beyond state borders has been a long-time goal of the anti-abortion movement. Unsuccessful thus far in enacting an overarching federal law, Idaho has stepped into this breach.

While it may be the first state to attempt to do so, it certainly will not be the last.

In its highly influential handbook of model “pro-life legislation,” Americans United for Life provides states with a blueprint for a Texas-style civil enforcement law. Entitled the Minor Girls’ Abuse Prevention Act, it would allow an individual to bring an action for damages against anyone who aids, abets or assists a minor in circumventing the parental involvement requirements (for abortion) of her home state. 

Teens have long been “one of the most vulnerable groups seeking abortion care,” in light of the array of legal, logistical and financial obstacles they must surmount in order to access reproductive healthcare services. These burdens are greatly increased in parental involvement states when the inability to involve a parent forces teens into the judicial bypass quagmire. And existing “barriers are compounded by poverty, race and other social statuses,” which makes it less likely that marginalized teens “will have resources and social networks to support them as they navigate barriers to abortion access.”

The Idaho law not only harms teens by potentially closing off their only hope for an abortion, it also punishes the grandmother desperate to assist her grandchild, the aunt with whom the teen has been living for years, and the adult sibling who knows what her home life is like by threatening them with incarceration. By classifying them as human traffickers, it also brands these adults as dangerous exploiters of vulnerable youth for their own nefarious ends. This, of course, further stigmatizes abortion as an unholy evil that states must be free to battle across geographical boundaries.

Jamie Sabino contributed to this op-ed.

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Shoshanna Ehrlich is professor emerita of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her books include Who Decides: The Abortion Rights of Teens and the co-authored Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom. She is currently collaborating with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts’ ASPIRE Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health on a minors’ abortion rights and access project.