Update: Utah now bans abortions after 18 weeks, as 2019 law goes into effect while trigger law is on hold.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade on Friday gave states the power to regulate abortions and Utah swiftly used it, putting its trigger law into effect that evening.
The law — passed by the Utah Legislature in 2020 as SB174 — bans abortions in the Beehive State, except in these limited circumstances:
• If it “is necessary to avert the death” or if there is “a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” of the pregnant woman.
• “Two physicians who practice maternal fetal medicine concur ... that the fetus has a defect that is uniformly diagnosable and uniformly lethal,” or “has a severe brain abnormality that is uniformly diagnosable.” According to the law, this does not include Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy or any condition “that does not cause an individual to live in a mentally vegetative state.”
• The pregnancy was caused by a rape or incest. Before performing an abortion, the physician will have to verify the rape or incest has been reported to law enforcement or the proper authorities.
That law went into effect Friday after the Legislature’s general counsel certified that the Supreme Court decision met the legal requirements for triggering it.
The ruling, which reached the same conclusion as a leaked draft published May 2 by Politico, spurred mixed reactions from Utahns Friday.
“Today is a dark day,” said Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Association and Planned Planned Parenthood Action Council of Utah, at a virtual news conference. “I have to admit, we’ve all been planning on this, especially since the leaked opinion happened about six weeks ago. But to have it reality is a real blow.”
Utah’s Planned Parenthood representatives said Friday morning that it would continue to provide abortions in the state until the law went into effect — which happened just after 6 p.m.
“As soon as it’s certified, we will have to stop performing any abortions here in Utah,” Galloway said, “and we will have to direct anyone who needs comprehensive reproductive health care to a friendlier state in the union — of which we have many — to be able to live their lives as they want.”
The closest states with wider abortion access are Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
“People deserve to get their health care in their own community, not put in a seven-hour drive to get your health care,” Galloway said. “But that’s what we’ll be facing.”
[Read: Here are the abortion laws in the states surrounding Utah]
When asked whether her organization plans to legally challenge the trigger law — as it did with Utah’s ban on abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy — Galloway said, “we’re certainly looking at all options.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah called the Supreme Court’s ruling “shameful” in a statement Friday, adding that the organization “is working with partners and providers to respond to this ruling and fight back. Our team will take every avenue to defend reproductive justice in the State of Utah.”
If Planned Parenthood or the ACLU — or anyone else — moves forward with legal action, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said he’s ready to defend the trigger law.
“The Supreme Court pronouncement is clear,” he said in a statement. “It has returned the question of abortion to the states. And the Utah Legislature has answered that question. My office will do its duty to defend the state law against any and all potential legal challenges.”
Galloway said she isn’t sure how the trigger law will be enforced, “and I don’t think they know how they’re going to enforce it yet. ... We’ll all be watching to see how this plays out.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill noted in a Friday statement that the legal terrain going forward is “uncertain.” He said his office will study the decision and the full scope of its impact.
“As is my duty as an elected prosecutor and representative of Salt Lake County, I will enforce the laws of the State of Utah faithfully,” he said.
Gill said that if a case related to Utah’s trigger law Is referred to his office, his team will analyze the facts and evidence, the requirements of the law and will “pursue criminal charges only when sufficient evidence exists to support a conviction, the interest of justice [that] will be served by the prosecution” and the “reasonable likelihood of securing a conviction.”
Anyone who performs an abortion in violation of Utah’s trigger law is guilty of a second-degree felony, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. An abortion clinic or physician that are involved could also potentially lose their licenses, the law states.
An abortion does not include the “removal of a dead unborn child” or an ectopic pregnancy, according to the trigger law.
[Read: Here’s how Utahns can get an abortion pill or emergency contraception now and if Roe is overturned]
It seemed unlikely that the Supreme Court was going to rule against Mississippi’s law banning abortions after 15 weeks, which was at the center of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, according to two Utah law professors who The Salt Lake Tribune previously interviewed.
Rather, the question was whether the nation’s highest court would overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that said “there is a federal constitutional right to privacy that protects a woman’s right to secure an abortion,” said Justin Collings, a professor who teaches constitutional law at Brigham Young University.
If Roe was struck down — as it was Friday — that would clear the way for Utah’s trigger law to go into effect, according to Collings and Leslie Francis, an expert in health law and bioethics at the University of Utah. But if the Supreme Court instead upheld Mississippi’s law without overturning Roe, then Utah’s 18-week ban, which has been on hold since 2019 due to a lawsuit, would have likely come back into play.
The 18-week ban would have allowed for the same exceptions as the trigger law.
[Read: The Utah Abortion Fund has been preparing for the Supreme Court ruling. Here’s what they do.]
After Politico published the leaked draft opinion, thousands of people in Utah responded by organizing and attending rallies.
“We now have politicians making decisions, critical decisions, about my body, your body, how I will start a family, how I will live life,” Galloway said. “It’s unbelievable that the Supreme Court” had the “audacity” to “overturn 50 years of precedent for over 50% of the population,” she said. “It is inconceivable to me, with this one decision, that they have changed the lives of so many people.”
Galloway added, “We cannot stand for this. We will need to fight back. We will have to let people know that they will have to stand up. They will have to speak out. They will have to vote as though their lives depended on it. Because they do.”
In the coming days and weeks, Galloway said her organization will continue to “help women, people who get pregnant, families, have the health care, the rights, the information they need to plan their families.”
To anyone who is feeling sad or scared after the Supreme Court ruling, she said, “you can always call Planned Parenthood.”
With the trigger law, “we can’t guarantee that you’ll get what you need, but we can help you work your way through the problem,” she said. “I just feel for everyone who’s scared right now and needs basic health care. And the state of Utah doesn’t seem to care.”
On Friday, Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said in a statement, “We wholeheartedly support this Supreme Court ruling and are encouraged to see abortion law will be left to elected state representatives. As pro-life advocates, this administration is equally committed to supporting women and families in Utah. we all need to do more to support mothers, pregnant women, and children facing poverty and trauma.”
Aaron Welcher, spokesperson for the ACLU of Utah, said in a statement that the Supreme Court’s ruling disproportionately affects “BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] individuals, those struggling to make ends meet, young people, rural residents, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ communities.”
He added: “Banning access to and criminalizing abortion can result in pregnancy losses being subject to suspicion, investigation, and arrest, and patients and doctors facing criminal felony charges and jail.”
The number of abortion procedures in Utah has generally declined — with some fluctuations — over the past few decades, from approaching 5,000 in 1990 to just under 3,000 in 2019, according to a report from the Utah Department of Health’s Office of Vital Records and Statistics.
The department has not publicly released statewide data for 2020 and 2021. But Planned Parenthood and Wasatch Women’s Center, the two main abortion providers in Utah, performed 3,037 abortions in 2020, according to figures they provided to The Salt Lake Tribune. Last year, there were 3,388 abortions done at their facilities. And those numbers are likely incomplete, as private physicians also perform the procedure.
Medication abortions have been available at three Planned Parenthood Association of Utah locations — the Metro Health Center, Salt Lake Health Center and Logan Health Center — and at Wasatch Women’s Center in Salt Lake City. (In-clinic, surgical abortions were available only at the Metro Health Center and Wasatch Women’s Center. Private physicians provided some abortions, too.)
Even with the trigger law in effect, Planned Parenthood remains open for sexual and reproductive health services like birth control, STI testing and treatment and cancer screenings.
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.