A Utah representative has introduced a bill that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, a law that would be among the most restrictive in the nation.
The state’s existing law allows abortions up until a fetus is viable outside the womb, or well into the second trimester. By that point, Rep. Cheryl Acton argues, an abortion can cause greater physical and emotional trauma to a woman. It can also involve a surgical procedure — called dilation and evacuation — that she finds objectionable.
"It shocks the conscience for me, the second trimester abortions, and for a lot of people," Acton, R-West Jordan, said.
Her bill would carve out exceptions to the 15-week abortion limit for cases of rape or incest, if the life of the mother is at stake or if the fetus has a lethal defect.
Mississippi last year passed a similar bill that would forbid abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, but the law was swiftly challenged by the state’s only abortion clinic. A federal judge in November struck down the law, ruling that U.S. Supreme Court precedent prohibits states from banning abortions before a fetus is viable, or after about 23 or 24 weeks of gestation.
Mississippi leaders signaled their intent to push forward with an appeal, according to the Associated Press.
In a news release, Rep. Angela Romero noted that courts have also blocked attempts to enact six- and 12-week bans in North Dakota and Arkansas.
“This is a federal issue, and the state should leave it alone,” Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said in a prepared statement. “Bills like this that have been tried by other states are always struck down. It’s a waste of time. It’ll never stand up in court.”
A progressive group, Alliance for a Better Utah, also came out with a statement against the legislation, saying the bill is an unconstitutional attempt to whittle away access to safe abortions.
“Message bills such as this abortion ban are an embarrassment to our state,” Lauren Simpson, policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, said in a prepared statement.
Acton acknowledges that if her bill, HB136, passes, it would almost certainly face a legal challenge. But if states such as Utah and Mississippi keep pressing for such abortion restrictions, the matter might eventually come before the U.S. Supreme Court, she said.
"I'm not saying it [the Utah legislation] will make it to the Supreme Court, but I think it's desirable for me, anyway, that at least the Supreme Court knows states are clamoring for more input on laws in their own states," Acton said.
The lawmaker said Pro-Life Utah and the Utah Eagle Forum asked her to run the bill, and she agreed after researching the issue. Acton acknowledges that she has long been anti-abortion, but said her intention with the bill is to strike a reasonable middle ground.
“I guess for me, I would probably be more comfortable with just the first trimester abortion only,” she said. “It’s not for me to say that no one should ever have one or have cause for one. But I think that we can all decide that by three months, you can decide what you’re going to do.”
Seventeen states have prohibitions against abortion after viability, and 24 states restrict them after a certain number of weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion access. Most of those states ban abortion about 20 weeks post-fertilization, the institute reports.
There were 2,759 in-state abortions by Utah residents in 2017, and of those, 150 of them happened after 15 weeks' gestation, according to the Utah Department of Health. The number of abortions in the state has been steadily declining over the past three decades, even as the population has grown, the same report shows.
“Every person deserves the right to control their own body — and that includes the right to decide whether and when to become a parent. This bill puts medical decisions in the hands of politicians, rather than women and their doctors,” Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said in a prepared statement. “This 15-week ban is part of a broader agenda to ban abortion one law at a time.”
And with the legislation almost certainly triggering a lawsuit, Acton’s bill would waste taxpayer resources, Galloway argued.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said abortion-rights groups always predict litigation will result when a bill restricting the procedure is on the table. There’s no telling if that’s correct in this case, she said.
“This is about the mother and the baby, and we need to do the best we can for both of them,” Ruzicka said. “And that’s what Utah should be all about."
If the legislation does end up in court, Utah can band together with other states that are waging similar legal battles, she said.