Mandatory abortion ultrasound bill dies in final hours of Utah’s 2020 legislative session

(Rebecca Santana | AP) The ultrasound of a woman who went to the Hope Medical Group for Women on Feb. 20, 2020, in Shreveport, La.

A controversial state bill to require ultrasounds before an abortion died without a final vote Thursday, days after all six of Utah’s female senators — both Republican and Democratic — made national news by walking out of their chamber to protest the measure.

The legislation has been in limbo between the House and Senate since Tuesday's walkout, waiting for one last vote of concurrence before heading to the governor's desk. But that last action never came, despite the bill sponsor's last-ditch effort to resurrect it.

Abortion rights advocates were elated at the de facto defeat after what they view as the Legislature’s sustained assault on access to the procedure.

“The people of Utah, including the women of the Senate and many others in both chambers of the Legislature, could see this bill for what it was — a deeply intrusive and medically unnecessary violation of people seeking abortion care in Utah,” Karrie Galloway, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said in a prepared statement. “This bill would have caused immense harm and trauma to those already making an often complex and difficult decision.”

This session, lawmakers approved a bill requiring medical providers to cremate or bury fetal remains after an abortion or miscarriage. On Thursday, they gave final passage to a bill that would ban all elective abortions in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverses its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling on the procedure.

Meanwhile, abortion rights advocates have said Utahns are weary of additional restrictions on the procedure, pointing to a recent poll that found fewer than a third wanted the state to make it harder to access abortions.

The mandatory ultrasound bill, HB364, would’ve required physicians or technicians handling the imaging to display the images to the woman and make the fetal heartbeat audible, if possible. The woman would still have the option of “averting her eyes” or asking the doctor to lower the volume.

A doctor would be barred from performing an abortion unless the woman produced a form showing she’d had the required sonogram. The penalties for disregarding the mandate would be up to $100,000 for a first offense and up to $250,000 for subsequent offenses.

Even Republican lawmakers had called the bill’s provisions “heavy-handed,” although they allowed it to proceed in the Legislature until it neared final passage. Then, earlier this week in the state Senate, a bipartisan group of female lawmakers united in resistance to the proposal, with Sen. Deidre Henderson saying it went too far.

“I am very pro-life, and always vote for pro-life bills," Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said. "But I’m concerned that we are overstepping with government mandates of medically unnecessary procedures.”

The protest move even caught the attention of Gov. Gary Herbert, who told reporters Thursday that Utahns should heed the “loud message” sent by the women of the Senate.

“We should value their input,” Herbert said. “There’s nobody that understands birth more than a woman.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Christiansen, attributed the failure of his legislation to the walkout, saying it had a “trickle-down effect” in the House. Still, he held out hope for his legislation’s passage until about 8 p.m., when the House voted 41-32 to set the legislation aside and move on to other bills.

Although it failed this year, he said the proposal isn’t gone for good.

“I still believe that there’s a significant need for women who are considering undergoing an abortion to have better information,” Christiansen, R-West Jordan, said. “So yeah, I think this bill is going to come back in one form or another.”

But there were also concerns that the bill could draw the state into a lawsuit when it’s already in court defending the 18-week abortion ban the Legislature passed last year.

Legislative attorneys had concluded HB364 was “highly likely to be challenged in court” if passed into law and pointed to diverging federal circuit court rulings on similar ultrasound policies in other states.

While the 6th Circuit Court found an ultrasound mandate did not unduly hamper a physician’s free speech, the 4th Circuit Court ruled that it was an unconstitutional violation of First Amendment rights. Neither of those courts has jurisdiction over Utah, which is in the 10th District.

“In light of the current circuit split, there is a moderate chance that a court with controlling authority over Utah would side with the 4th Circuit and find that an ultrasound requirement is an unconstitutional burden on a physician’s First Amendment right to free speech,” the legislative analysis states.

Tribune reporter Benjamin Wood contributed to this report.