Utah legislator tries again to pass bill allowing women in jails to stay on birth control

The Salt Lake City Democrat said she hopes the legislation will help prevent unintended pregnancies.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, pictured here in 2020, is trying again during the 2021 legislative session to pass a bill that would allow women held in jails to be able to stay on their prescribed birth control.

A Utah state representative is trying again to pass a bill that would allow women held in jails to be able to stay on their prescribed birth control, with the goal to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

HB102, sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, passed committee by a 9-3 vote Tuesday. It now goes to the House floor.

“This is a really effective, efficient, humane way to avoid a lot of ... very bad outcomes for people and for children in this state,” Dailey-Provost said. “Because we want women to have babies when they want them. We absolutely want to support people starting families when they’re ready for it, when they feel ready to do so.”

“But,” she added, “I think that most of us can agree an unintended pregnancy, regardless of the situation of the patient, is not always the best outcome.”

This is Dailey-Provost’s third time running this legislation, but she said “it hasn’t taken three shots because it’s a bad bill.” Instead, she said it had “more to do with my being a new legislator” and figuring out how to pay for costs that came with her proposal.

She initially “received a lot of pushback” because the bill as originally drafted created “an unfunded mandate to the jails,” she said. Dailey-Provost has since worked with Utah’s jail leaders to address those concerns, she said. The current draft states that the estimated $88,500 cost would be paid for by the Utah Department of Health.

In her years working on this legislation, Dailey-Provost said one of the most common questions she hears is, “Why do individuals who are in jail need birth control? Are women getting pregnant in jail?”

“The answer to that is, most of the time, no,” she said, although “it does happen.” Rather, “the problem that we’re looking at really solving” is the disruption that incarceration can cause to a person taking birth control, which can lead to an unintended pregnancy.

“As providers for women with substance use disorders, our patients are frequently incarcerated,” according to a statement read by Dailey-Provost from leaders of the University of Utah Health’s Substance Use in Pregnancy Recovery Addiction Dependence Clinic. “... We have had many experience with women whose contraception was stopped involuntarily while incarcerated. They were then released from jail and they became pregnant because of the lapse in pregnancy prevention.”

Currently, inmates can generally take other needed medications while in jail, according to Dailey-Provost. This exclusion addressed in Dailey-Provost’s bill is “a real oversight,” said Rep. Rosemary Lesser, D-Ogden, who’s an OB-GYN. There are multiple other medical conditions aside from birth control that contraceptives are prescribed for, she said, such as for heavy bleeding.

“It’s important to understand contraceptive medication is a maintenance medication, just like those prescribed for high blood pressure, asthma, high cholesterol, hypothyroidism, and the like,” said Maryann Martindale, of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians. “Continuation of these types of medication is critical for maintaining efficacy.”

Amelia Clement, an OB-GYN in Salt Lake City, who also spoke in favor of the bill, said, “Birth control and contraception is an essential part of health care, and to take away this medication from a particularly vulnerable and marginalized patient population is doing them a disservice.”

Dailey-Provost clarified that this bill is “for patients who already have a history of having been prescribed” an oral contraceptive, injectable contraceptive or an intrauterine device.

“This is not a situation where somebody can say, ‘Hmm, I need birth control. I think I’ll go get arrested,’” she said.

The legislation also states that generic forms of the medications may be provided.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, who voted against the bill, said he had some structural issues with the proposal and thought “the risk of pregnancy is too remote to justify the program and expense.”

I don’t know that I’m ready to equate contraception with medical care,” he said. “... I’m just going to be educated. I could come along with that. Maybe that’s where the medical establishment is. Maybe that’s where everybody is. But I’m just a dumb, old lawyer, and I’m way back here. And this is very new to me.”

He added, “requiring the government to provide contraception to jail inmates” seemed “too much, too fast, too far.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.