Utah House panel OKs abortion ban
Utah lawmakers want to take on Roe v. Wade - and cost is no obstacle.
At the last minute Tuesday, House Health and Human Services Committee members adopted an unseen bill that directly challenges the landmark Supreme Court case on abortion.
Legislative attorneys caution that the bill probably will be found unconstitutional. And lawmakers have prepared for that: They plan to establish a litigation fund. No money has been set aside so far, but estimates for the legal bill start at $1 million.
"I'm excited to take this challenge to the Supreme Court," said sponsoring Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. "We're known for our family values and our children. We have the opportunity to lead the nation."
It wouldn't be the first time. In the early 1990s, Utah passed an abortion ban that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and cost taxpayers more than $1 million to defend. The law never went into effect and was ultimately struck down as unconstitutional.
Ray's original legislation was a so-called "trigger law," meant to go into effect only after another state successfully challenged the 34-year-old abortion rights case. Lawmakers heard comment on the original bill before replacing it with another.
About 3,000 Utah women, on average, have abortions each year. According to a Planned Parenthood study, their average age is 25. Two-thirds of them already have children. And just over half feel they have no control over when to have intercourse with their partners or whether to use contraception.
If Utah lawmakers want to ban abortion, they need to consider those women, Planned Parenthood President Karrie Galloway said, because many may turn to illegal back-room abortions - possibly leading to infection, sterility or death.
"Abortion is rare in Utah," Galloway said. "But there are at least 3,000 women who need to make that decision. What are we going to do for them?"
But Eagle Forum Secretary Marianne Christensen, the only member of the public to speak for the bill, said unborn babies need lawmakers to defend them. She predicted divine retribution if abortions continue.
"We are a nation founded with divine providence. We will continue to prosper if we adhere to principles that will cause those blessings to fall upon our heads. If we degenerate to the point where we kill our own offspring, that's not something God is going to tolerate for long," Christensen warned.
After an hour of public comment, Orem Republican Rep. Stephen Sandstrom replaced the bill with similar legislation that would ban all abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to prevent a woman's death or ''substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.''
"This is the most important legislation that I could possibly be involved with in the entire time I'm a state legislator," said Sandstrom. "We're talking about preserving the sanctity of human life. The state of Utah should lead the charge."
Ray said he was "100 percent behind" replacing his legislation.
Both Ray and Sandstrom said the threat of a lawsuit and legal costs should not be allowed to deter the effort. Lawmakers are flush with cash, looking at a projected $1.6 billion surplus.
But Democrats on the committee said their conservative colleagues are risking frivolously throwing away taxpayers' money on a message bill.
Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Holladay, wondered why male lawmakers want to make the decision for women. "I am firmly convinced that if men were the childbearers, abortion would be legal and would not be challenged," Riesen said.
And Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, asked his colleagues when they would "get real" about preventing unwanted pregnancies, rather than cracking down on women once they are pregnant. Litvack shook his head as his Republican colleagues shrugged off the million-dollar legal bill.
"It's irresponsible to spend tax dollars in a blatantly unconstitutional effort," he said. "This is silly."
Galloway called the new legislation a ''bait and switch. Everybody thought we were here on a trigger law. The people of Utah had no idea we were talking about banning abortion,'' she said.
Even Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was surprised at the change in legislation. He agreed with legislative attorneys that there is a ''high probability it will be found unconstitutional'' if it becomes law.
''I'm a little caught off guard,'' said Shurtleff, who was aware of the substitute bill but still expected the committee to adopt the trigger law. ''It's going to be a very costly battle. But that's not my call. That's a policy decision.''
Galloway says Utah taxpayers would be on the hook for years of litigation. ''It could be years before it goes into effect'' - if ever, she said.