Lawmakers took the first step Friday to tripling the waiting period for abortions in Utah from 24 hours to 72 — hailed by conservatives as a way to promote wiser decision-making, but lambasted by critics as an undue burden designed to punish women seeking abortions.
"It is a life-altering decision for two people involved. I do not believe that requiring more time is detrimental to that life-altering decision for those two people," said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sponsor of HB461.
The House Health and Human Services Committee approved it on a 4-1 vote, and sent it to the full House. The 72-hour waiting period would make Utah tied with South Dakota for the longest waiting period for abortion in America.
"Basically, this is a consumer protection issue that gives a person facing a major life decision, a major medical decision, a major financial decision, sufficient time to consider the ramifications," Eliason said, adding it would help overcome any pressure from a boyfriend or others to have a quick abortion.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said she has never met a woman who decided to carry her baby to term say she wished she had an abortion instead. "But I have worked with so many women who have had abortions and say it’s the worst thing that ever happened to them."
Eliason said he has a close friend who has similar regrets, so he said it is wise to require more time for women to ponder the extensive data that the state requires to be given to them when they seek an abortion.
But ACLU attorney Marina Lowe said the extension "creates an undue burden on the right of a woman to obtain an abortion," in part because abortions in Utah are available only in Salt Lake City — so a longer waiting period could require multiple trips for women in rural areas, hurting the poor.
"For those women who have the fewest financial resources, those who must travel long distances, and those who will have difficulty explaining their whereabouts to others, a 72-hour waiting period will be particularly burdensome," she said. She added that a judge has blocked South Dakota’s recently enacted 72-hour waiting period for similar reasons as it is being challenged.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, tried unsuccessfully to address such concerns by amending the bill to allow the waiting period to begin not only after a personal meeting with a doctor, but also one by telephone. It died after Eliason said a personal consultation is needed to explain issues well.
Heather Stringfellow, vice president of Planned Parenthood of Utah, said women usually have thought long and hard before talking to a doctor about abortion.
"We believe this bill is bad policy that will not reduce the number of abortions but rather punish women for making the choice to terminate a pregnancy," she said.
"If the intention is to reduce abortions in Utah, then we should be doing more to get women information about avoiding unwanted pregnancies and access to contraception, not creating roadblocks to safe and legal abortion," Stringfellow said.
But a variety of conservative groups, and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, supported the bill, saying it will make for better decisions.
"Seventy-two hours is not too much to ask for a decision that affects the woman, her child and generations yet to come," said Laura Bunker, with United Families Utah.
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