You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Panic Stations

The Brand New Anti-Abortion Law That’s Steeped in an Old Moral Panic

Idaho’s “abortion trafficking” law is paranoia masquerading as public policy, and there’s more on the way.

Natalie Behring/Getty Images
Abortion rights advocates protest in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where some of the nation’s most draconian anti-abortion laws have been passed since Roe was overturned last year.

Last week, the Idaho state legislature made headlines and history when it passed a measure making it a felony to assist young people in crossing state lines for abortion care. Other states have tried and—so far—failed to restrict residents from traveling out of state for abortions, but Idaho may have hit upon a formula for success by targeting young people. The law’s justification rests on a central contradiction at the heart of conservative politics: a Satanic Panic–esque, conspiracy-derived frenzy over the need to protect children, coupled with insidious efforts to use the rule of law to do the exact opposite. Few anti-abortion bills embody this tension more fully than Idaho’s, which exploits both the historical disenfranchisement of young people and the language of conspiracy in a baroque, factually suspect effort to stop “abortion trafficking.”

The threat of “abortion trafficking,” like any number of myths propagated by the anti-abortion movement, is not rooted in reality but rather has been spun up out of a sense of creeping moral panic, combined with an insincere demonstration of  “helping” children—by doing anything but. Trafficking is a useful valence for what this law will actually criminalize: the very ordinary impulse to help someone you care about navigate a common procedure under uncommon circumstances. “Every single person potentially could end up with a friend, a loved one, who might need abortion care, and that includes people who don’t believe in abortion,” says Sara Ainsworth of If/When/How, a reproductive justice law group that operates a legal helpline for people navigating abortion care amid restrictions. “This idea that everybody around a pregnant person is potentially committing a crime just by helping them is a very disturbing and unprecedented trend in U.S. law, and this bill is a perfect exemplar of that.” 

With its loophole of restricting travel by targeting young people, the law sets a precedent for other states to follow—much like Texas’s notorious Senate Bill 8. That measure, which encouraged ordinary people to inform on each other for facilitating abortion care, became a model for similar policies across the country. But the Idaho law also builds on a long history of limiting young people’s autonomy, particularly when it comes to health care, and not just among Republicans. Even before Roe was overturned, many states enforced parental consent laws, some with support from Democrats, that required young people to obtain parental consent before having an abortion. Those who could not involve their parents in the decision were forced to go before a judge for approval.

In this way, young people have always been “easy targets” for this misuse of the law, says Ainsworth, a dynamic that’s also evident in state-level restrictions on gender-affirming care, which often resemble abortion laws in their mechanisms and replicability. The rationale and underlying message are also the same: that these laws ostensibly protect young people from their own decisions. “The ease with which young people’s rights have been restricted in so many contexts, I think, makes it likely that people are going to continue to push for these kinds of restrictions that specifically affect young people,” says Ainsworth.

You can draw a straight line from pre-Roe parental consent laws to Idaho’s grim innovation, but it also reveals another pattern in the ongoing conservative moral panic over sexuality: a conflation of sexual freedom and coercion that betrays a profound misunderstanding of both. Just as the SESTA/FOSTA laws conflated consensual sex work with trafficking, the Idaho law’s use of the term “trafficking” shows a deep disconnect with the reality of sex trafficking, which more often facilitates the need for abortion care, as opposed to being caused by reproductive freedom.

“There’s no evidence that restricting young people from abortion care helps stop human trafficking of young people,” says Ainsworth. “There’s no correlation between the two.” Meanwhile, she noted, anti-abortion bills rarely consider the needs of survivors in any meaningful way. In fact, since the reversal of Roe, it’s become the norm for anti-abortion bills no longer to include exceptions for victims of sexual assault. “I’m sorry, but you can’t fool us,” Ainsworth says. “You can’t fool those of us who’ve been in the movement against sexual and domestic violence for decades that you care at all about survivors and what they need or don’t need.”

Idaho has long been a laboratory for policies that provoke constitutionally rooted legal challenges, and this one is no different. The same week Governor Brad Little signed the trafficking bill, Planned Parenthood filed suit against the state’s attorney general’s opinion that providers in Idaho cannot refer patients out of state for abortion care, and it’s likely the trafficking bill will be the focus of similar lawsuits. But moral panics can destroy lives even if they don’t dictate policy, and so can the misinformation they propagate.

Even if Idaho’s law is challenged, says Ainsworth, the confusion such measures trigger causes its own kind of damage. “Even when laws are not enforceable, and they get enjoined, unfortunately, people are still so confused—and rightly so—about what’s legal and what’s not now that a lot of people don’t access care when they perfectly well can legally,” she says. “On our helpline we get a ton of calls from people all over the country, and a lot of times people call and believe that something that they need is not legal, when in fact it is.”

The confusion is the point. In his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter wrote of politics as “an arena for angry minds” marked by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Hofstadter applied this diagnosis to “extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

The resonance with today’s political arena is almost too much to bear. What is “a small minority” if not the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court or the number of Americans who want to see abortion banned entirely? What is a “conspiratorial fantasy” if not the idea that sexual freedom and shadowy crime must be one and the same? At the heart of this dynamic is fear: a fear that maybe young people do know what’s best for them, a fear of challenging gender norms, a fear of losing control, a fear of admitting that traditional power structures were always built on shaky ground. 

Here is the truth about abortion: It is common, and if you are a compassionate or caring person, offering support will be instinctual when someone you love comes to you with the news that they need one. Outlawing this kindness won’t help anyone. But it will sow chaos and isolate vulnerable young people. And for the party of Pizzagate, with its long-standing commitment to saving children from problems that aren’t real in the name of fueling moral panics whose consequences are, that’s exactly the point. Because when the truth is no longer available, the lies are the only weapons left.