Administrators at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, removed several artworks from an exhibition on health care, citing a state legislature that prohibits the use of public funds for abortions. The works, which address abortion and reproductive rights, were removed last week from the exhibition ahead of its opening on 3 March at the school’s Center for Arts & History.
Titled Unconditional Care: Listening to People’s Health Needs, the exhibition explores health issues, including chronic illnesses, disability, pregnancy and gun violence, through the perspectives of those directly impacted by them and the policies governing those issues in the United States. Many works are accompanied by wall texts with evidence-based medical facts, statistics and citations, as the show was intended to be objective and educational for students, according to its curator, artist Katrina Majkut.
Majkut was among the three of 15 artists told that their works had to be removed after the school obtained legal advice. Her work, a cross-stitch of the two pills required for medication abortion—mifepristone and misoprostol—was removed; the wall text for her work about in vitro fertilisation treatments was also revised to cut references to abortion. Other works that were taken down, by Lydia Nobles and Michelle Hartney, centre women who talk about their experiences around abortion. Nobles contributed a series of audio and video interviews, and Hartney transcribed a letter from the 1920s sent from a mother to birth control activist Margaret Sanger.
“Over ten-plus years I have worked with my body of work with over 25 colleges across the country in red and blue states,” says Majkut, whom the Center had invited to organise the exhibition. “I never had one problem. Never heard one piece of discontent. I’ve never been censored. To my understanding, I have never had to go through someone’s boss’s boss and lawyers.”
The school is citing Idaho Code Section 18-8705 as the basis for preventing the works from inclusion in the exhibition. The legislation is part of the “No Public Funds for Abortion Act” that the state’s Republican legislature signed into law in 2021. It states, in part, “No person, agency, organisation or any other party that receives funds authorised by the state, a county, a city, a public health district, a public school district or any local political subdivision or agency thereof may use those funds to perform or promote abortion, provide counseling in favour of abortion, make referral for abortion or provide facilities for abortion or for training to provide or perform abortion.”
“It felt like the ‘No Public Funds for Abortion Act’ was really meant for actual abortion—why would it apply to the expression or the depiction of abortion?” Majkut says. “Especially since the way my artwork operates, it’s very neutral. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the thing that you have a strong opinion about.”
Lewis-Clark State College did not respond to requests for comment. The school’s decision has drawn criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Coalition Against Censorship and PEN America.
Kirsten Shahverdian, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, called the move a “slap in the face to academic and artistic freedom”.
“This draconian act of censorship is particularly troubling on a college campus, where the exchange of ideas should be free from political interference, and that includes art.” Shahverdian said in a statement. “Banning these artworks signals to people—especially women—that they must silence themselves and their experiences when it comes to any aspect of reproductive or sexual health, stripping them of their fundamental rights to free expression.”
Scarlet Kim, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement that the decision “silences [women’s] voices and deprives the public of a critical opportunity to engage in a broader conversation about these important topics. It jeopardises a bedrock First Amendment principle that the state refrain from interfering with expressive activity because it disagrees with a particular point of view.”
The artists first found out that senior administrators took issue with their works a few days before the opening. Nobles had received an email from the university that cited the Idaho legislation but did not explain why the law applied to the works. Majkut later gave higher-ups at the school a tour of the exhibition, after which they told her that she could not show her work. She says they discussed alternatives to removal alone, including adding a notice explaining why the works were removed or leaving the wall text. “None of that was accepted,” she says.
The school has remained tightlipped about its decision, only sending the artists a note on Tuesday (7 March) that said, in effect, that the school’s administrators provide a fuller explanation at a later date.
“The school is sending the message that because they sided with the law—whether or not the school actually is anti-abortion or believes in choice—they’re just saying money comes first,” Majkut says.
The “No Public Funds for Abortion Act” previously led the University of Idaho to send a memo to employees warning them not to promote abortion, including dispensing emergency contraception or advertising services for abortion. Nationwide backlash resulted in the university clarifying its statement to say that no campus policies had changed and that students had the same access to contraceptives.
“I feel like everyone was acting out of fear,” Majkut says of the situation at Lewis-Clark State College. “It’s the general sentiment, because all these laws are new to people. There’s no precedent to how they're being applied.”