Conservative legislators are backing away from costly plans to take on Roe v. Wade this year -- given Utah's tight budget -- but they want to start stockpiling donations for a future court fight against abortion.
"We are looking at wanting to ban abortion in Utah, period, end of story. However, we want to do it correctly," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman. "We're not going to back away from abortion. We're never going to let it die."
Wimmer is working with Rep. Ken Sumsion, R-American Fork, and Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, on a bill that would bar abortions except in the case of rape, incest or permanent physical harm to the woman.
But the legislators realize Utah doesn't have the estimated $2 million to $7 million it would take to defend such a ban in court. So they are putting off their anti-abortion bill and instead proposing legislation that would create a legal defense fund for a court showdown later.
Wimmer said a private organization was willing to defend an abortion ban and finance the fight. But, he said, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff "would have to give up the right to defend it because, the fact is, it would end up costing about $2 million, and we don't have the money."
However, the Utah Constitution mandates that the case would have to be overseen by Shurtleff, spokesman Paul Murphy said Tuesday.
"The attorney general is the legal officer for the state," Murphy said, "and no matter who defends it, it would have to be under the direction of the AG's Office."
Wimmer said he recognizes Shurtleff is "passionate" about defending an abortion ban and decided to propose the legal defense fund to raise money to pay the state's court tab. That fund would be open for five years, and any donations would go solely toward defense of an abortion ban. If, after five years, there isn't enough money to pay for the legal fight, the funds would be used to help promote adoptions, said bill sponsor Sumsion.
A similar fund was set up in 1991, when Utah passed one of the nation's most restrictive abortion laws. (The measure was later overturned.) The fund received $8,950 in 1991 and $4,804 in 1992, according to the Utah Division of Finance. Of that money, $12,400 was transferred to the Attorney General's Office. There is still $1,354 in the account today.
The state, though, spent $1 million unsuccessfully defending the law.
Missy Bird, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Committee, said the current cost to try to overturn Roe v. Wade would range between $4 million and $7 million.
"The people would really be hard pressed to endorse a public fund that we can put millions of dollars into when the people of Utah have better priorities," she said.
She wishes the Legislature instead would focus discussions on matters such as proposed cuts in Medicaid to pregnant women, the end of the Baby Your Baby program and eliminating the Medicaid cancer program, which helps low-income women pay their medical bills to fight breast and ovarian cancer.
"Wouldn't it be incredible," Bird said, "if this state set up public funds to do those things instead of set up public funds to defend abortion laws?"