After the Supreme Court decision on abortion last month, Chaela Mcdonald decided to reach out to her state senator to figure out what was going to happen in Utah and how it might affect her.
She had read about the trigger law that would ban most abortions here. She was concerned that other rights for women, like access to the birth control that she takes, would be targeted next.
With the subject line “I’m scared,” she emailed Sen. Curt Bramble, a Republican representing Provo, where she lives, and asked him: “Could you explain more about what the abortion trigger law will mean for women in Utah?”
He answered in a surprisingly fast 18 minutes. His words surprised her more, though. There was no greeting or salutation, just one sentence:
“The explanation is that the ‘trigger law’ will stop the barbaric slaughter of innocent unborn children,” Bramble replied on June 24.
Mcdonald, 34, said she was hurt by what she felt was a snippy, uncivil response to a constituent reaching out with a genuine question to the person who is supposed to represent her.
“I was messaging him in good faith, with real worries,” she said. “He legitimately sounds like a Twitter troll. There was no need for that.”
She had included in her email to him a paragraph that said: “There are a lot of people from the UT state government making very harsh generalized statements about issues that are actually quite nuanced. There’s not a lot of compassion or tolerance for questions or concerns.”
Mcdonald said she feels Bramble reacted just as she feared, proving that point. She had addressed her message to “Mr. Bramble” and ended with “Kind regards,” intending to show respect. She said she is disappointed by his harsh rhetoric.
Bramble’s reply came hours after Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, spoke at a news conference earlier that day in favor of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which left the decision on whether to allow abortions up to states. Lisonbee has since drawn national attention for her remarks, saying it’s up to women to “to control [their] intake of semen” and not get pregnant so they don’t need an abortion.
After an uproar, Lisonbee later clarified her comments, adding that, “Women do not have a choice when they are raped and have protections under Utah’s trigger law.” The trigger law is currently on hold after a judge paused it from taking effect.
Mcdonald, who describes herself as “pro-liberty” when it comes to abortion and wants everyone to be able to make their own choice on what’s best for them, said she is concerned about the recent discourse from state leaders, including Bramble and Lisonbee.
But Bramble said he stands by his answer to her email.
“Her specific question was what would be the impact of the trigger bill,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Quite literally the impact of the trigger bill will stop the slaughter of unborn children. I was responding to the question that she asked.”
Mcdonald contends that he did not answer her question. “He didn’t explain what it would mean for women at all,” she said. “My question was about the impact on women.”
She added: “I was just earnestly looking for information. But now I don’t know. I don’t feel represented. I don’t know why you’d talk to any constituent that way, let alone a woman coming to you with concerns.”
Bramble’s past legislation on abortions
Bramble has long been known for being a brash lawmaker, as well as a longtime anti-abortion champion in Utah.
In 2020, he sponsored two controversial bills on the topic. The one that failed would have required women to have an ultrasound before they could have an abortion in Utah; the six female senators in the Utah Legislature walked out during the first hearing.
The one that passed and was signed into law requires health care providers in Utah to either bury or cremate the remains after an abortion or miscarriage.
Bramble also proposed a highly disputed bill in 2016 that passed and now requires health care providers to administer anesthesia to the fetus during an abortion after 20 weeks. It was opposed by Planned Parenthood of Utah, which said the medical science on fetal pain at that time is very much in doubt. And several medical staff have since said it is impossible to do the procedure that Bramble’s legislation calls for.
“I believe unborn children are entitled to the protection of the state,” the senator told The Tribune last week.
When asked, though, if he thought his response to Mcdonald was courteous, he shouted into the phone that he answered her question and that was all he needed to do. And he continued to repeat that over and over.
“If she asked a different question …,” he trailed off, “but that was the question she asked.”
Mcdonald never responded to Bramble. She said she drafted some replies but didn’t send them. She wanted to ask if the senator had really responded that way or if it was a joke — she was still incredulous. She thought maybe she had the wrong email. Bramble uses a personal address, which is listed on the state’s website to contact him, instead of the standard “.gov” legislative email.
“But what’s he going to say back except for the same crap?” she said. “It didn’t feel like it would be productive to respond.”
Instead, Mcdonald posted a screenshot of the email on Twitter. There, several people said it seemed like a typical response from a lawmaker here, with one noting specifically, “Welcome to Utah!” A few said they have previously been concerned with how Bramble has responded to them, too.
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, a former Utah Teacher of the Year, replied: “When I was lobbying for public ed, one of these men told me to go bake cupcakes for my husband. True story.”
Some said there is an issue with how male lawmakers — and sometimes female, in Lisonbee’s case — talk to and about women in Utah.
Concerns with how women are treated
Susan Madsen, the director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project at Utah State University, said the “rude, harsh, belittling behavior” from politicians in Utah is not new. But she is stunned by the remarks from both Bramble and Lisonbee.
“Some of it still surprises me because I keep expecting more out of people who should be good,” Madsen said. “Our leaders are supposed to be examples. And they’re not.”
Madsen has studied how women are treated in Utah. Beginning last fall and into this spring, she released a series of reports on sexist comments. She thought maybe 100 women would respond; 1,000 did.
Part of her work has specifically looked at how female politicians are treated by their male co-workers in the state. She recalled one story that has stuck with her.
A female leader went to sit at a table during an event. A male politician was sitting there already, with his wife to his left and two empty seats to his right. The female leader sat at the far right chair, leaving one spot between her and the man.
The female leader recounted the male leader patting the empty seat and telling her: “Move your sexy body over here.”
“Everyone struggles with this treatment, but generally in more religious and conservative societies, you see that play out more,” Madsen said about why it seems to be prevalent in Utah, which is dominated by Republicans and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There have been earlier examples in the Legislature, she noted.
The next year, during debate on a bill to require businesses to accommodate breastfeeding mothers, male lawmakers drew fire for how they spoke about women. Then-Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, was concerned by the idea of women “milking” themselves in the office.
In 2013, in a conversation about dating violence, Jenkins also said young people would misuse the law as a way to get revenge on a significant other.
“A lot of times you roughhouse. A lot of times you are trying to determine limits, what your limit is, what her limit is, when you have gone too far and when you haven’t gone too far,” Jenkins said. “Now if you feel uncomfortable about something that happens, you go and get a court order” instead of ending relationships.
Madsen said the lack of understanding of sexual violence and domestic violence is a large problem on the Hill.
Other Utah lawmakers have talked about being kissed and touched without their consent by male co-workers.
Madsen said she or others have called male leaders out on inappropriate behavior toward women, but “these same lawmakers are the ones who refuse to acknowledge unconscious bias or want any training. They say, ‘We don’t have time for this.’”
She believes there are deep-rooted issues with how men talk to women in Utah; she said she is especially worried to see it often at the Legislature.
Bramble’s comment to Mcdonald ignored her concerns and was impolite, Madsen said. It is a prime example of the problem. She feels the lawmaker brushed off Mcdonald’s concerns because she is a woman. He didn’t attempt to understand where she was coming from, Madsen added, and how the law does impact her.
‘I need to do something’
Mcdonald returned to Utah in February after a few years in Connecticut.
She had written in her email to Bramble: “I just recently moved back to Utah and now I’m wondering if that was the wrong choice.”
After his response, she has thought about that more. But it’s also emboldened her. She is considering running for office in the future so that she has a voice in policies that concern women.
Katie Matheson, a political commentator previously with the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Utah, said part of the problem with the Legislature is that the gender breakdown doesn’t represent the population. There are far more men in office than women, by about four to one.
“Our laws reflect it,” she said. “We continue to come in last for women’s policy and representation.”
She is glad Bramble’s response has prompted Mcdonald to possibly get involved.
“His lack of good bedside manner when it comes to taking rights of 50% of the population away from them, it’s not a surprise for me,” Matheson added. “It’s unfortunate. It’s unfeeling.”
Mcdonald used to teach in juvenile detention centers and said she can handle the vitriol. She said she expects elected leaders to rise above it.
Even just sending her a link to learn more about the law would have been more helpful than his response, she added.
“He ran to represent all of us and not just the ones who voted for him. And if Curt Bramble can’t, then I need to do something,” she said. “I can at least write a freaking email.”