BOISE - A lawmaker from North Idaho drew audible gasps Wednesday morning when he asked representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union-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 noted 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.
"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. 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."
Mendive, who was first elected to the Legislature last year, said he posed the question because he was incensed by what he believes is a double standard.
"It was just a question," he said. "I do believe it's a double standard."
Prostitution is a choice "more so than an abortion would be," he said.
"Because (in an abortion) there's two beating hearts. And then there's one," Mendive said.
Mendive said he didn't intend to trivialize human trafficking, but he still stressed that he believes prostitution is often a choice that a woman makes about what she does with her own body.
Asked if he stood by his words, however, he conceded, "Maybe it was a poor illustration."
House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Meridian, said he disagrees with Mendive and believes the northern Idaho freshman should have refrained from making the comparison.
Most women who engage in prostitution do so because of circumstances beyond their control, Vander Woude said, not out of their own volition.
"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 said during testimony last March.
Winder later said he was misunderstood and never meant to cast doubt on the truthfulness of a woman's claim of rape.
Associated Press reporter John Miller contributed to this story.