Bill proposes to ban elective abortions in Utah if Roe v. Wade is overturned

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Utah Sen. Dan 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, June 19, 2019.

A state lawmaker says he’s about to release a bill that would ban elective abortions in Utah as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court clears the path.

Anti-abortion advocates have long looked for the state’s affirmation that life begins at conception and say a forthcoming bill sponsored by Sen. Dan McCay would provide the definitive statement they’ve been seeking. Although the ban itself would remain dormant for the immediate future, supporters say its prohibitions would snap into place if the nation’s highest court ever overturns Roe v. Wade — maximizing the number of abortions that could be prevented in the state.

“We tend to overvalue the people that are here and undervalue the people that aren’t here yet,” McCay said Friday in an interview. “There has to be a way that we can respect the life of the unborn child and at the same time be supportive of the mom.”

The Riverton Republican announced at a June anti-abortion rally that he was preparing a bill to limit elective abortions in the state and says he’s spent the intervening months researching the issue and trying to “balance all the rights and interests that we’ve had for several decades now."

Language for the proposed ban hadn’t been released as of Friday afternoon, but McCay outlined the proposal in an interview, explaining that it would create exemptions for cases of rape or incest or if the life of the woman is at risk.

Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, denounced the proposal as described by McCay.

“If Senator McCay’s public statements on his bill are accurate, this ban is an attack on the agency and well-being of Utahns," Galloway said in the statement. "To take away the freedom to decide if and when to become a parent is even more harsh considering the lack of support the state provides for family planning services and access to health care for low-income residents. This ban simply goes too far in inserting government into our personal, private lives.”

McCay said his wife, Tawnee McCay, played a central role in his decision to advance the bill and that she will testify in favor of it. A Riverton councilwoman, Tawnee McCay led the charge last year for that city’s controversial passage of a resolution opposing abortion and declaring that life begins at conception.

Because the proposed abortion ban would kick in only after a Supreme Court ruling, it would not provoke a lawsuit, McCay said. Supporters say that’s likely to benefit the proposal, as the state is already embroiled in litigation over the 18-week abortion ban passed in last year’s legislative session.

The Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sued to strike down the 18-week law, one of many such cases now winding their way through the nation’s courts. Anti-abortion activists across America have been pushing for state-level restrictions guaranteed to draw a legal challenge, hoping for a hearing before a Supreme Court that has tilted further to the right with the arrival of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Karrie Galloway, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, at a news conference on Utah's pending 18-week abortion ban, at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday April 10, 2019.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, argued the high court is “one justice away” from revisiting its landmark 1973 abortion decision, which is why she believes the state should have a ban ready for deployment.

Without McCay’s bill, the Legislature would either have to gather for a special session after a Supreme Court decision or wait until the next regular session to enact an abortion ban. By having the prohibitions ready to go, McCay said his bill could potentially prevent hundreds of abortions.

There were 2,923 abortions in Utah in 2017, 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.

Ruzicka said Utah is ready for an outright prohibition on elective abortions, noting that McCay’s bill would allow the procedure in cases of rape or to save a woman’s life. She predicts the Legislature would be receptive to the measure, especially because of the trigger clause that keeps it from taking effect until the legal obstacles are cleared away.

Ruzicka said she pushed the state in 1991 to enact sweeping legislation that would have banned abortion in most cases, and ever since that law was struck down by federal courts, she’s been waiting for a chance to resurrect it.

In the decades since Roe v. Wade, advances in health care and medical science have transformed the way people think about abortion and pregnancy, McCay said. And he hopes that if a ban were to take effect, society would embrace and support pregnant women in a way it didn’t in the past.

“The scarlet letter days, I hope, are far behind us,” he said.

But Galloway of Planned Parenthood contends that abortion must remain a “safe and legal medical procedure” in Utah.

“The truth is that abortion is a critical component not only of reproductive health care but of people’s ability to lead free and fulfilling lives with dignity and agency,” she said. “Every person must have the freedom to make decisions about their health in consultation with their doctor and loved ones without interference from extremist politicians.”