A fledgling bill meant to overturn the landmark abortion rights case awaits debate by the full House. But its future seems certain with conservative lawmakers dominating both houses of the Legislature and the Governor's Office.
While concerned about the price tag, the House majority leader endorsed the concept Wednesday. And Senate Republican leaders whole-heartedly backed the bill.
"On its face, it is unconstitutional. But there are a lot of issues that are ripe for the Supreme Court to consider," said Senate President John Valentine, an attorney. "It's the kind of thing the citizens of this state would support."
And citizens will have to support it - literally. Defending the bill could cost at least $2 million.
Abortion foes across the country hope new Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito will shift the balance on the court and reverse 34 years of legal precedent.
Originally, Clearfield Republican Rep. Paul Ray intended to piggyback on another state's challenge of the 1973 Supreme Court case establishing a woman's constitutional right to end a pregnancy. But late Wednesday, members of the House Health and Human Services Committee replaced that "trigger law" with an outright ban on elective abortions, intending Utah to lead the fight to end abortion.
The bill provides exceptions in cases of rape, incest or to prevent a woman's death or "substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." Without allowing public comment on the new bill, committee members sent it to the House floor for debate.
House Majority Leader Dave Clark says there is "no question" legislators will support the bill. But, "whether the state of Utah should be the leader in the financial fight" is in question.
The Attorney General's Office estimates the legal battle will cost taxpayers at least $2 million - double that if an outside law firm is hired. In the early 1990s, the state's abortion ban cost more than $1 million to defend - not including plaintiffs' fees. That law was found unconstitutional.
Senate Budget Chief Lyle Hillyard said the legal bill should not discourage Utahns who want to end abortion. "I don't think we as a state can judge things based on a cost [estimate] if the principle is correct," the Logan Republican, an attorney, said.
But Planned Parenthood Action Council Director Melissa Larsen says lawmakers should rethink their priorities.
"We have a surplus this year and people in our community are asking for education funding, money for transportation and money for health care," Larsen said. "What are we going to have to sacrifice if we have to pay $3 million to $4 million? It's risky to bank on the Supreme Court."
Some lawmakers have suggested partnering with another state that adopts a similar elective abortion ban. In the past few days, legislators in at least nine other states have introduced similar legislation, including South Dakota, Georgia, Virginia and Montana.
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's spokesman Paul Murphy said Utah has shared legal costs with other states in the past. Shurtleff is awaiting direction from lawmakers.
* Tribune reporter MATT CANHAM contributed to this report.
Would outlaw most abortions
Next step: Moves to the full House