Senate panel approves elective abortion ban in party-line vote

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, votes in the Utah House of Representatives, Wednesday, February 8, 2017.

When Katelyn Powell found out she was going to have a baby, a friend suggested she get an abortion and “for a moment,” Powell considered terminating the pregnancy.

“Being pregnant, at that time, wasn’t part of my plan,” Powell said Wednesday. “I wanted to finish school. I wanted to travel. I wanted to do so many things.”

But Powell said she “chose life" after seeing her baby’s image in an ultrasound, and knowing that he was more than just a clump of cells.

“When that egg and sperm met, what determined him happened right then,” Powell said. “His eyes, his nose, his cheeks, his hair, everything in that moment. Life begins at conception.”

Powell shared her story with members of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, who voted Wednesday along party lines for a bill that would ban all elective abortions in the state, with exceptions for rape, incest and the health of a mother.

The bill, SB174, would take effect only if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its established precedent guaranteeing a constitutional right to abortion. And Riverton Republican Sen. Dan McCay, the bill’s sponsor, said that Utah women who still desire an abortion once the law kicks in could access the procedure by traveling to other states like Colorado or Oregon.

Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Jani Iwamoto — who along with the committee’s other female senator voted against the legislation — said that the decision to have an abortion is a personal one, and that she respects the beliefs and viewpoints of others.

“I would never want to place my beliefs onto anyone else,” she said.

But McCay said “that baby deserves a choice for life, as we all do. ... And I think that choice is important enough to protect from a state’s interest.”

The senator was joined in his presentation of the bill by his wife Tawnee McCay, a member of the Riverton City Council who led that city’s adoption of an ordinance declaring Riverton to be a “sanctuary city for the unborn.”

She told lawmakers that she is “proud and unashamed to be pro-life," and that Utah needs to be ready for the day that Roe v. Wade — the landmark Supreme Court case on abortion — is overturned.

“Human life is precious and it should be treasured,” she said.

Sarah Zarek, an obstetrician, said she grew up opposed to abortion rights, but had come to learn that parents are motivated to access the procedure with good hearts in response to tragic circumstances, like fetal abnormalities that would result in severe disability and physical suffering.

“Freedom means respecting that other people may make decisions that I would not make for myself,” Zarek said.

Earlier this week, the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, Alliance for a Better Utah and American Civil Liberties Union of Utah released statewide polling that showed a majority of the state’s residents support either maintaining or loosening the state’s restrictions on abortion.

Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah, reminded committee members that her organization is currently involved in litigation against the state over an 18-week abortion ban approved last year, and added that debate on new limitations has become something of an annual tradition at the Legislature.

Before receiving an abortion in Utah, a woman must already complete a 72-hour waiting period and watch an information module that says the state prefers childbirth to abortion. Lawmakers are also considering legislation this year that would require the burial or cremation of fetal remains and force women to receive an ultrasound before an abortion.

“It’s hard to find a year when the Utah Legislature hasn’t added to the long list of restrictions and unnecessary burdens that must be overcome before someone can seek an abortion in this state,” Lowe said.

But Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, said his decision to support the bill comes down to a balance between the rights of a mother and the rights of a growing fetus.

“My opinion, my sense, my belief is the fetus has as much right to life as the mother would have for her choice,” Sandall said. “And I believe that I’m going to land on the side of the unborn fetus every time in this space."

The bill will now move to the full Senate for consideration.