Utah senator readies legislation to eliminate elective abortions across the state

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Senator Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, speaks during an event put on by Abortion-Free Utah as it launches a public campaign to end elective abortion in the state of Utah during a press event in the rotunda of the Utah Capitol on Wed. June 19, 2019.

Sen. Dan McCay says he is crafting legislation that seeks to end elective abortions in Utah based on the belief that life begins at conception.

“Life is a creation that is brought to us by a divine personage, and that life should matter to everyone,” the Riverton Republican said Wednesday during an anti-abortion rally at the state Capitol. “We can’t hide behind the words like ‘choice’ or ‘options’ or ‘freedom.’”

McCay said that the details of the bill haven’t been worked out but that he’ll likely draw from measures passed in other states. He’s unsure if his proposal will include exceptions for cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is at stake.

During his speech Wednesday, he called some of these situations “inconvenient" for pregnant women.

“I would like to talk to you for just a moment about the difficulties that we all know come as a result of bearing a child in the most inconvenient times, be it rape, be it incest, be it as a single parent like my mother was,” he said.

“It takes courage,” he continued. “It’s not going to be easy. And as a married father of six, I will tell you, even when you’re married and you have six, it isn’t easy either.”

To avoid litigation, McCay’s abortion ban might feature a trigger clause that would put it on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court authorizes states to enact such strict laws, he said. But even a dormant ban is worth passing now, McCay said, so it could take effect as soon as the nation’s highest court gives the all-clear, if that were to happen.

McCay’s spouse, Riverton City Councilwoman Tawnee McCay, led the charge last month for that city’s controversial passage of a resolution opposing abortion and declaring that life begins at conception.

Alliance for a Better Utah, a left-leaning organization, condemned McCay’s proposal as a blatant violation of women’s constitutional rights.

“Eliminating the right to safe abortions would have disastrous consequences for our state, leading to unsafe abortions and putting women’s lives at risk,” Lauren Simpson, the alliance’s policy director, said in a written statement.

Dozens of rallygoers watched McCay’s announcement during a news conference to kick off Abortion-Free Utah, a campaign to stop elective abortions in the state.

Merrilee Boyack, the campaign’s chairwoman, said the initiative will use a “multipronged approach” to eliminate abortions in Utah. One tactic will be to spread information and resources meant to dissuade women from seeking abortions, and the group has already launched a website with video animations of the procedure and links to anti-abortion articles.

“We support the God-given right of life of all unborn human beings and decry all elective abortion that would end that human life in its very vulnerable stages,” Boyack said during the Capitol Rotunda news conference.

Rally participants lined the stairs behind her, most of them wearing golden shirts that — according to Boyack — symbolized the light that babies bring into the world.

The campaign will call on Utahns to “rise up,” Boyack said, with a petition declaring that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life that cannot be infringed.” So far, they’ve gathered more than 2,000 signatures, she said.

Finally, Boyack said the campaign hopes to push Planned Parenthood out of the state by stationing sidewalk advocates outside clinics and pressing the federal government to defund the reproductive health organization.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum and another organizer of the anti-abortion campaign, said the group might investigate Planned Parenthood to make sure the nonprofit is providing the health services it advertises.

Karrie Galloway, CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, one of only two abortion providers in the state, said her organization believes all people deserve the right to plan a family as they choose.

“We believe access to affordable health care and comprehensive sex education allows people to create healthy families. We believe that politicians have no place in health care decisions, and that access to safe, legal abortion should be protected,” Galloway said in a prepared statement.

“To those who oppose abortion, we urge you to join us in making sure all Utahns have access to affordable health care, including contraception, and the information they need to stay healthy and plan their families, and to fight for pro-family economic policies,” Galloway continued.

Speaking during the news conference, Ruzicka reflected on her decadeslong fight against abortion and advocacy for a 1991 bill that prohibited almost all elective abortion in Utah. Federal judges ultimately blocked the law, finding it unconstitutional and at odds with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

Since then, anti-abortion activists in Utah have been inching the state back toward that 1991 law, “going back to that gold standard, the standard that says life begins at conception,” Ruzicka said. (The 1991 legislation did contain exceptions in cases of rape and incest, and to prevent the birth of a child with “grave defects” or to prevent “grave damage” to the mother’s health.)

Utah lawmakers earlier this year approved two bills to restrict abortion in the state. One measure aims for an eventual ban on abortions sought solely because of a fetal Down syndrome diagnosis. These restrictions are on hold until the courts uphold a similar law in another state.

“I look forward to the day when every unborn brother or sister, regardless of gender, race or ability, will enjoy the most fundamental human right — the right to life,” said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, sponsor of the Down syndrome legislation.

The other bill would prohibit most abortions after 18 weeks’ gestation; the courts have barred the state from enforcing this ban pending the resolution of a legal challenge by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

The abortion rate in Utah has been declining steadily over the past four decades, with fewer than 3,000 procedures happening in the state in 2017, the latest year for which data is available. More than two-thirds of those abortions were performed in the first eight weeks of pregnancy, according to the Utah Department of Health.