For decades, Idaho’s GOP has played political games with the reproductive rights of the state’s women.
Other than generating huge legal fees, Republican lawmakers paid no price — because these blatantly unconstitutional bills had minor implications on the day-to-day lives of their constituents.
But the day of reckoning may be unavoidable.
Earlier this year, the GOP approved another anti-abortion rights bill. This one would outlaw any abortion after a fetal heartbeat could be detected — usually about six weeks. In most cases, that occurs before women are even aware they’re pregnant.
Health care providers who participate in abortions could have their licenses suspended or permanently revoked. Physicians could face prison sentences of two to five years.
Even the measure’s exceptions for rape and incest come with a steep impediment. Victims must file a complaint with law enforcement and then provide a copy of the police report to the health care provider before they can obtain a legal abortion.
Of course, this was mere political theater. Roe v. Wade was the law of the land last April when the measure passed 53-16 in the House, 25-7 in the Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. Brad Little.
But it took on concrete features last week when a 5-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stop Texas’ fetal heartbeat law from taking effect. Unlike Idaho, that bill has no exceptions for rape or incest, and it incentivizes individuals to file civil lawsuits against abortion providers.
For the moment, Idaho’s fetal heartbeat law remains theoretical because it would require a federal appellate court decision to activate it.
“In reaching this conclusion, we stress that we do not purport to resolve definitively any jurisdictional or substantive claim in the applicants’ lawsuit. In particular, this order is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas’ law, and in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts,” the Supreme Court said.
Still, it was a 5-4 conservative majority flexing its muscles. Could enactment of Idaho’s fetal heartbeat law be far off?
If so, two generations of Idaho women and families who took reproductive rights for granted will discover they answer to the whims of a Legislature that is dominated by older men.
We’ve seen this movie before.
In 1990, Idaho Republicans passed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion rights bills in the country. Although then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus vetoed it, voters — including Republican women — remained incensed. By November, pro-choice Democrats had flipped Idaho’s 1st Congressional District seat for the first time since 1966 and rode the issue to an even split in the state Senate — the party’s best showing since Dwight Eisenhower was president.
About a decade ago, Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, persuaded 22 of his colleagues to pass what one critic decried as a GOP “litmus test” on the abortion issue — requiring women to get a transvaginal ultrasound as a precondition to obtaining an abortion. Since the Senate tends to be more moderate, this measure should have sailed through the House. But outrage among women voters — no doubt including some GOP legislative spouses — persuaded House leaders to let the bill die without even hearing it in committee.
Even though Idaho has seen an influx of more conservative voters in the past three decades, Republican leaders still have reason to fear the backlash of women voters.
Those voters were instrumental in overturning the Legislature’s draconian anti-teacher laws in 2012 as well as implementing Medicaid expansion in spite of lawmakers’ resistance in 2018.
Nor is interference in their private health care decisions the only grievance women voters might have against the GOP legislative majority.
At least some mothers of school children can’t be thrilled with the Legislature’s botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
How many women were riveted by a young intern’s claim that she was raped by former state Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, R-Lewison, and then publicly shamed by Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird?
As for icing on the cake, there’s the GOP’s arrogant attempt to revoke the initiative process until a unanimous Idaho Supreme Court blocked it.
All of which could prove to be a substantial opportunity for Idaho’s beleaguered Democrats to hold the GOP to account and even win some elections.
Of course, that depends on Democrats displaying an ability to recruit and support candidates next year.
This is Idaho, so that’s a big if. — M.T.