Utah GOP Reps. Birkeland, Lisonbee say their threat to abortions providers was only their ‘opinion,’ not a legal document

The letters, signed by a group of Utah House Republicans, threatened prosecution for people who provide or fund abortions while an injunction keeps Utah’s trigger law on hold.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Representatives work on the house floor at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 4, 2022, during the final day of the Utah Legislature’s 2022 general session. In letters sent with their official letterhead, state Reps. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, and Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield — along with a group of more than 20 other Republicans — said on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022, that anyone who violates Utah's trigger law while it's blocked by a district court-ordered injunction will be prosecuted in the future.

Republican state lawmakers backpedaled less than a day after sending cease and desist letters to abortion providers in Utah, threatening prosecution if they violate an abortion trigger law that is currently on hold in the state.

Penned by state Reps. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, and Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, and printed on Utah House of Representatives letterhead, the letters sent on Thursday afternoon said anyone who violates the ban during a district court-ordered pause on the trigger law will be prosecuted in the future.

Friday morning, the lawmakers walked back the threat, sending an email to reporters clarifying that the letters were only “our opinion and the opinion of the legislators who signed it.” In addition to Birkeland and Lisonbee, the letter was signed by 20 GOP Utah representatives and two candidates running to replace Republican incumbents whose names were not on the letter.

“Some of our colleagues from the other side of the aisle believe the letter we sent to abortion providers and abortion funds yesterday is incorrect, but at the same time they think our legislative attorneys drafted it,” the Friday morning email read. “After receiving these questions, we want to clarify that the press release and letter we issued was not a legal analysis from the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel but our opinion and the opinion of the legislators who signed it. While we are incredibly disappointed with the judge’s ruling to stay enforcement of S.B. 174, we respect the law and process.”

In Utah, abortions are currently legal until 18 weeks, at which point they are banned with limited exceptions.

According to a spokesperson for the Legislature, the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel does not speak with the media and would not comment on the letter. A spokesperson for Utah Courts said judges, including the one who issued the injunction, are not able to comment on specific cases.

The letters were sent to the head of Planned Parent Association of Utah and lawyers representing the group; the American Civil Liberties Union; a professional association for abortion providers; national and local abortion funds; as well an OB-GYN practicing in Salt Lake City.

They come as PPAU, along with help from the ACLU, challenges the Utah trigger law in court. The ban was first blocked by 3rd District Court Judge Andrew Stone with a temporary restraining order just days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, then again in July by a preliminary injunction.

In August, the Utah Attorney General’s office asked the state Supreme Court to allow it to appeal the injunction. The court has not yet answered the petition.

A spokesperson told The Salt Lake Tribune that the attorney general’s office was not involved in drafting the letter and that it does not believe it will impact the state’s case.

“The Utah Attorney General’s Office will continue to defend the constitutionality of SB174. In the meantime, the State will continue to abide by the injunction entered by Judge Stone,” spokesperson Richard Piatt wrote in an email.

In a statement sent to The Tribune, PPAU said it was unfazed by the lawmakers’ threat.

“This is a political stunt. Full stop. Anti-abortion politicians are trying to circumvent the judicial system by harassing health care providers and instilling a culture of fear. PPAU is providing abortion care in full compliance with current law and always has. Our lawyers will continue to monitor the situation, but we remain open for our patients and will continue to do all we can to make sure all Utahns can get the health care they need.”

The 2020 law, for which Lisonbee was the House sponsor, prohibits abortion in all cases, except for a few limited circumstances, including rape.

While celebrating the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Lisonbee told reporters, “I got a text message today saying I should seek to control men’s ejaculations and not women’s pregnancies ... I do trust women enough to control when they allow a man to ejaculate inside of them and to control that intake of semen.”

She later clarified the comment in a text message to The Tribune, saying the remarks did not accurately reflect what she intended to say.

The letters sent Thursday also included a promise that the GOP House members would “be introducing legislation next session to ensure that you and your accomplices are held accountable for every criminal abortion that you perform in violation (of the trigger law).”

Birkeland announced on Twitter in July that she was opening a bill file that would prohibit government entities from “setting any procedure for reporting of a violent felony that doesn’t go through proper law enforcement agencies. It will restrict an abortion clinic from accepting any non-(law enforcement officer) generated case number as the reporting of a rape.”

The aggressive letters were sent while House Speaker Brad Wilson is out of the country, accompanying Gov. Spencer Cox on a trip to the Middle East. Wilson, whose name was not on the letter, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With the exception of Lisonbee, the House Rules vice-chair, no one in House leadership signed the letter.

This isn’t the first time Birkeland has sent a letter from her platform as a state representative that has confused Utahns. In June, the lawmaker used her official letterhead to offer school principals resources for dealing with the “transgender phenomenon” in the classroom.

Neither Birkeland nor Lisonbee responded to requests for comment.

Soon after the letters were sent, signee Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, told KSL NewsRadio that he was retracting his name from them.

“My understanding, when I was presented the letter, was that it was more cautionary. It seems to me that the letter is a little harsher than I recall agreeing to sign on to,” Handy said. He didn’t respond to a request for further comment.

The signees included:

  • Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan

  • Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield

  • Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George

  • Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi

  • Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan

  • Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan

  • Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan

  • Rep. Melissa Ballard, R-North Salt Lake

  • Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo

  • Rep. Judy Rohner, R-West Valley City

  • Rep. Jon Hawkins, R-Pleasant Grove

  • Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale

  • Rep. Mike Petersen, R-North Logan

  • Rep. Stephen Whyte, R-Mapleton

  • Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, who later retracted his name

  • Rep. Matt Gwynn, R-Farr West

  • Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City

  • Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield

  • Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi

  • Rep. Colin Jack, R-St. George

  • Rep. Steve Lund, R-Manti

  • Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland

  • Candidate Stephanie Gricius, running in House District 50

  • Candidate Katy Hall, who beat Rep. Kelly Miles, R-Ogden, in the primary election for House District 11

Clarification • This story was updated after a spokesperson for the Utah Legislature later clarified that they do not speak on behalf of the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

Correction • This story was updated to reflect that Katy Hall defeated Rep. Kelly Miles in the Republican primary election and that Stephanie Gricius is running in House District 50.