Pregnancy had not been easy for Neena Earl. Her first daughter was stillborn and she had four miscarriages before giving birth to two kids.
She and her husband were excited to be adding another baby sibling to the family, only to find out the fetus had a significant genetic abnormality.
“We were given the choice, after a medical ethics board reviewed it, and they told us we could abort if we wanted to,” she told me last week. “It was the hardest choice I ever made in my life, obviously. I think it was even harder than going through the stillbirth with my daughter. … It was harrowing, it was horrific. It was hell.”
It was also a choice she was grateful to be able to make, and, after a draft Supreme Court opinion leaked to Politico last Monday, one she fears women may not be able to make in the future.
The majority of the court, according to the opinion, would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and give each state the ability to decide whether to grant women the ability to terminate a pregnancy.
The Utah Legislature has already passed one of the most restrictive laws in the country, a ban on almost all abortions, that would take effect after a Supreme Court ruling is officially issued — which is likely to happen in June.
“I just feel like I can’t believe this is happening in my lifetime,” Earl said after hundreds of people opposed to the potential court ruling rallied at the Utah Capitol to maintain the right to choose.
“This is 2022 and if that were me and this goes through,” she said, “I never would have had the opportunity to [have an abortion] and I would maybe have experienced another stillbirth or watched my child slowly die and been forced to go through that pregnancy.”
Examples like Earl’s point to the problem that arises when the law tries to draw clear lines that can’t possibly take into account the fact that life is not simple. It’s messy and complicated and doesn’t always go as planned.
You can dislike abortion and believe it’s a good thing that Utah’s abortion rate is at a 40-year low and still understand that, when life doesn’t go as planned, women should be able to choose for themselves what is right in their individual situation — a level of individual liberty and self-determination that will be stripped away if Utah’s law takes effect.
“There are as many reasons that people opt to terminate a pregnancy or make the very complex, personal decision that is right for them and their family as there are people,” said Jessica Sanders, a professor of family planning at The University of Utah.
Dr. David Turok, an OB-GYN at the University of Utah, said that on several occasions he has cared for two patients whose fetuses are, at the same time, diagnosed with the same cardiac defect with the same prognosis — multiple surgeries, each surgery carrying a risk of death and, if the child survives, a limited life — and those women took different options.
“They both felt relief and respect in their decision and they felt they made the right decision for their family,” said Turok. (Both he and Sanders emphasized their views are their own and they do not represent the university.)
“It strikes me that, how could you possibly know the right answer for somebody else 100% of the time?” Turok said. “The world is a complicated place and you’re determining that, regardless of the circumstances, they need to continue with a pregnancy they don’t want.”
A few years ago, Lynn Phillips found out she was pregnant after her intrauterine device birth control, which are almost always effective, had failed. “I kind of remember just being petrified with fear,” she said.
She and her husband had planned their life without children and taken reasonable steps to prevent pregnancy, but were thrown a curve. Together, they made the decision to get an abortion. Phillips said she remembers sitting in the waiting room with a teenage girl and her mom and a few other women. Notes of encouragement and reassurance from other women who had passed through the clinic were pinned to the wall.
Phillips said the procedure itself was “extremely expensive, extremely painful and extremely traumatic,” but she has no regrets. She worries, though, that if Utah’s law takes effect, women could be forced to continue unwanted pregnancies.
If the situation arose again, she said, she would travel out of state for the procedure — and she and her husband are considering moving anyway to “somewhere where my rights are protected, where I won’t be punished for just existing.”
If Utah’s law is triggered, Turok estimates that 99% of abortions currently being performed will be illegal. That does not mean they will go away.
Those who can afford it will travel out of state. Those who can’t will be forced to take more desperate measures.
Utah’s law will re-victimize survivors of rape. While there is an exception allowing an abortion in cases of rape or incest, the law requires the doctor to verify the assault has been reported to police. Based on Utah’s most recent data (from 2007), just one out of every eight sexual assaults is reported to law enforcement. National data from 2018 puts the number at one in four.
Either figure indicates there will be women who are victims of rape or incest who are forced by the state to carry the fetus to term, an unimaginable level of cruelty.
The law also has an exemption for a “uniformly lethal” defect to the fetus, a vague term that puts doctors in the untenable position of deciding if a defect is probably lethal or definitely lethal.
Utah could do better. We could seek out a policy that strives for compassion and empathy, recognizes life’s complexity and reflects the will of Utah voters.
Instead, in their moralistic zeal, Utah lawmakers imposed a black-and-white solution that ignores the nuance, punishes women and jeopardizes their health and well-being.
If you would like to support women who will be impacted by the impending court decision, you can make a contribution to the Utah Abortion Fund at https://utabortionfund.org or Planned Parenthood of Utah at https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-utah