Sponsor of proposed Utah abortion ban will change her bill from a 15-week cap to 18 weeks

The sponsor of a bill narrowing the window for legal elective abortions in Utah said Tuesday that she intends to allow the procedure until 18 weeks of fetal development, up from 15 weeks in her original proposal.

Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, said the change is for “strategic reasons" and to bolster the odds of the law surviving a likely court challenge if it is approved by the Legislature.

“[Utah] should be the safest place in the nation for women and children, born and unborn,” Acton said.

Acton’s bill, HB136, is scheduled to have its first committee hearing at 8 a.m. Wednesday. On the eve of that hearing, Acton’s pitched the proposal to her colleagues in the House Republican Caucus, citing statistics and studies that link elective abortion to increased rates of suicide, infertility and other negative outcomes.

“We all suffer as a society from a lot of the problems that stem from abortion,” Acton said.

Utah law currently prohibits elective abortions after roughly the 22nd week of fetal development. But most providers voluntarily stop offering the procedure at 21 weeks, Acton said, in order to avoid overstepping legal prohibitions.

Acton’s original 15-week ban would have established one of the strictest abortion standards in the nation, at a time when opponents of abortion rights are renewing efforts to test the limits of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established a nationwide constitutional right to abortion.

The revised 18-week ban is still likely to prompt litigation, if enacted, something that Acton acknowledged to fellow lawmakers would cost the state “reasonable” attorneys fees in the event the state’s law is struck down.

“Which is what?” asked Rep. Craig Hall, R-West Valley City. “Two hundred dollars an hour for three years?"

Acton clarified that a successful legal challenge is estimated to cost Utah between $1 million and $3 million. And she stated that she objects to Utah law giving stricter deference to the handling of a dead body than it does to handling a fetus.

“We have laws to protect a corpse from being dismembered,” she said, “but not a living baby in the womb.”

Acton’s bill includes exceptions to the ban, including circumstances where a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or threatens the life and health of a mother. She said the new version of her bill will also provide an exception in cases where the fetus develops a severe abnormality or debilitating brain malfunction.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who is also a physician, thanked Acton for adding an exception for abnormality and malfunction, which he said is a common motivator behind later-term abortions.

“They are really difficult situations that people find themselves in as they look at their future,” he said.