BOISE, Idaho — A lawmaker from North Idaho drew audible gasps Wednesday morning when he asked representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho if their pro-abortion rights stance also means that they support prostitution.
Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, made the comparison during a legislative breakfast presentation held by the ACLU on criminal justice reform and other legislative priorities.
Since the ACLU supports a woman’s right to choose abortion, shouldn’t the organization also support prostitution, Mendive asked ALCU-Idaho executive director Monica Hopkins. Mendive then said that prostitution is “a woman’s choice.”
Hopkins responded that a woman’s right to access reproductive health care is constitutionally mandated, while prostitution is illegal. She also reminded Mendive that prostitution is not always a “choice,” noting that a bill targeting human trafficking could be presented to lawmakers during the legislative session.
Mendive, a freshman lawmaker who’s only served in the Legislature for a week and a half, defended his question in an interview with The Spokesman-Review.
“I am anti-abortion, so that’s why I brought up that question,” he said.
Mendive said, “Actually I grew up in Kellogg, and the reality is there used to be brothels in Wallace. That was a career choice – no one forced them into that.” He said he didn’t mean that he thought prostitution should be legal. “I think that there’s kind of a double standard,” he said. “With abortion there are two beating hearts, and prostitution, there’s just one. If a woman were going to make a choice to be a prostitute, that’s her decision as to what to do with her body.”
He said in his view, it’s comparable to someone deciding to use illegal drugs. “I don’t support that either,” he said. “Those were just examples.”
Mendive said he didn’t feel like his question was answered. “She changed the topic,” he said of Hopkins. “Human trafficking is a real serious problem in this country,” Mendive said.
“He was correlating a criminal action with something that is constitutionally protected. Those are two completely separate issues,” Hopkins said after the event.
“When we’re talking about women’s rights, and a woman’s right to choose, we are talking about reproductive rights that are constitutionally protected,” she said. “What Rep. Mendive was talking about in the arena of prostitution is something that the state has very clearly said is an illegal activity … in the same way that someone may choose to rob a bank, but that would be criminal activity that is not constitutionally protected.”
House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Meridian, said Mendive made a poor comparison. “Rarely when a woman becomes a prostitute, is it because of a choice,” Vander Woude said. “The example, in my opinion, was a very poor choice.”
This incident marks the second time inside of a year in which an Idaho lawmaker has gained attention from comments he’s made about abortion. Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise, the Senate assistant majority leader, made comments during the 2012 session in debate over a bill to require a woman to get an ultrasound before an abortion.
“I would hope that when a woman goes into a physician with a rape issue, that that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage, or was it truly caused by a rape,” Winder told the Senate last March.
Winder later said he was misunderstood and never meant to cast doubt on the truthfulness of a woman’s claim of rape.
Hopkins said she was glad Mendive was among 15 or 20 state lawmakers who attended the ACLU’s breakfast event; he was the first one there. The presentation covered an overview of the group, and then focused mostly on criminal justice reform.
“The interesting thing about the ACLU is you may not agree with us on one issue, but a lot of times we can find common ground on other issues,” she said. “I actually commend him for coming to the breakfast and learning a little more about us.”
Asked about making the news like this when he’s just been serving in the Legislature for a week and a half, Mendive said, “I guess that’s life. There’s right and there’s wrong. I’ll stand up for right.”
Mendive was outspoken about his anti-abortion stance as part of his “Life, Liberty and Property” platform when he ran for the Legislature this year; after narrowly winning the GOP primary by nine votes, Mendive took more than two-thirds of the vote in the November general election in North Idaho’s heavily GOP District 3.
“I will support the right of the unborn child,” Mendive declared on his campaign website. “Since Roe vs. Wade, over 50 million babies were denied the ‘right to life.’ Roe vs. Wade is an example of a law imposed by unelected judges.”
When told his early-morning question had landed him in the news, Mendive was surprised. “Was there a reporter in the room?” he asked.
There was; an Associated Press reporter was covering the justice reform presentation.
Staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.