Why Utah Republicans want more abortion restrictions

Members of the federal delegation, the attorney general and state lawmakers have continued their push to limit access to abortion both in Utah and nationwide in recent days.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Knights of Columbus honor guard stands by a symbolic casket during a pro-life memorial service in front of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, to honor the lives of 1,746 unborn babies that were aborted in Utah in 2022.

As legislators gathered in the Utah Capitol on Wednesday, conceiving of new laws to govern Utahns, anti-abortion demonstrators set up a macabre display to push for more restrictive reproductive measures on the steps outside.

With a hearse parked on the sidewalk and speakers playing the sound of a heartbeat, Pro-Life Utah hosted a “Memorial for the Unborn” to remember the 1,746 fetuses they say have been “killed by abortion” since a judge put the brakes on the state’s trigger law last year. Around 100 people gathered, dressed in black, for the staged funeral.

“These are the babies that should have lived, the babies that our own Utah Legislature tried to protect. So how did this happen?” asked Deanna Holland, the head of the organization.

Utah’s trigger ban on abortion went into effect last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, under which the court previously held that women have a constitutional right to an abortion. A few days later, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, and a district court judge put the law on hold.

“We breathed a breath of air of righteousness and praised God that Utah babies would be saved. And then the devil showed his face,” Holland said, reflecting on the lawsuit. She continued, “Babies would continue to be killed throughout the lawsuit, just like our law had never been passed.”

A program for the demonstration listed six Utah Republican lawmakers as pallbearers — only one, Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, came to carry the small white casket placed in front of attendees. In 2019, Acton introduced an 18-week ban on abortion that has been in place since the injunction.

Earlier in the day, a group of religious organizations — including Christian, Jewish and Islamic groups — submitted an amicus brief to the court in support of Planned Parenthood. They wrote that their members often counsel with leaders on reproductive choices, but that they do not adhere to “moral teachings that life begins at conception or implantation, or that abortion is always sinful and immoral.”

The trigger law, it said, “will prevent members of these congregations from exercising their faith and acting in accordance with their consciences in accessing abortion care,” and that its “grounding in the moral beliefs of some religions over others denigrates the moral beliefs of these congregations and their members and further harms them in this way.”

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The Utah League of Women Voters is holding a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday to discuss its own friend of the court brief it is submitting in support of the lawsuit.

Action against abortion from Utah officials

Officials and politicians at all levels of Utah government have cracked down on abortion with increased intensity in recent days.

U.S. Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney joined Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., in introducing a bill that would prohibit any federal funds from going toward abortion. That includes any coverage of elective abortion under federally subsidized insurance plans provided through the Affordable Care Act.

And in the days leading up to the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes expanded his fight against abortion beyond the Beehive State by taking stands against federal efforts to expand access to reproductive health care.

Restricting abortion access has long been a position of Reyes’. His campaign website says, “Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes is unabashedly pro-life!”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney General Sean Reyes talks during a news conference at the Capitol, on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Reyes is fighting for restrictions on abortion both in and outside of Utah.

The Republican attorney general signed a letter addressed to the Food and Drug Administration commissioner criticizing the agency for new rules on abortion pills, and added his name to an amicus brief submitted as part of a lawsuit against Veterans Affairs for providing abortions to veterans.

The moves come as the Republican attorney general continues to defend Utah’s abortion trigger law in court. The near-ban on abortion went into effect last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, under which the court previously held that women have a constitutional right to an abortion.

Now, abortion policymaking is mostly left to states and their courts. The Utah Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal of the injunction from Reyes’ office, but denied a request to end the hold on the law.

Reyes, in the meantime, is among a number of GOP attorneys general weighing in on abortion policy in the few realms where the federal government still has a say.

The FDA finalized a rule that allows women living in states where abortion is legal to obtain mifepristone — the pill used to induce an abortion — remotely through telehealth appointments and by mail earlier this month.

In a letter sent to the FDA, Reyes and 21 other attorneys general criticized the agency’s policy change because it “ignores women’s health.”

Taking mifepristone does, as the attorneys general wrote, come with risks. But as it opened up its rules to allow women to obtain the drug remotely, it also kept in place much of its Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy Program — including the requirement that the pill be prescribed by a REMS-certified health care provider, who is to explain all of the risks associated with it before issuing the prescription.

“Our States will not yield to the Administration’s radical pro-abortion policies,” the letter reads, later continuing, “Though the FDA has abdicated its responsibility to protect women’s health, we have not.”

Since the Dobbs decision, Veterans Affairs has also made changes that widen abortion access for those it serves. In September, it announced it would begin offering abortion counseling and, in some cases, abortions.

The only instances in which it will provide an abortion are when the life or health of a pregnant veteran would be endangered if the pregnancy were carried to term, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest — both of which are exceptions made in most abortion bans, including Utah’s.

“Veterans are also at greater risk of experiencing pregnancy-related complications due to increased rates of chronic health conditions,” VA wrote in its announcement. “Therefore, to protect the life and health of pregnant Veterans and eligible beneficiaries, VA determined that it was necessary to provide access to abortion counseling and — in some cases — abortions.”

Soon after it began offering services, a nurse practitioner working for VA in Texas filed a lawsuit alleging the policy violated her religious rights, and that she could be in legal jeopardy if she provides an abortion to a victim of rape or incest because those exceptions are not included in the Lone Star State’s law.

Reyes, along with 17 other attorneys general, submitted a friend of the court brief last week supporting her case. They characterized the move as “bureaucrats wielding power that neither the people nor their elected representatives ever gave them.”

“(VA’s rule) reflects disregard for the democratic process, intrusion on areas of traditional state authority, and defiance of the Supreme Court’s recognition that the hard questions in this area have been ‘return[ed]’ to ‘legislative bodies,’” the attorneys general wrote. Continuing, they said, “ ... the VA justifies the rule not because of the absence of state laws on the subject of abortion but because of the Department’s disapproval of them on policy grounds.”

In its response, VA wrote that its secretary “determined that this care was necessary to ensure that, irrespective of what laws or policies States may impose, covered veterans and beneficiaries who receive care from VA will be able to access life- and health-preserving medical care.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Dan McCay speaks at a rally sponsored by Abortion Free Utah and other groups at the Capitol to celebrate the end of Roe v. Wade, on Saturday, July 2, 2022.

There has been little movement in the case against Utah’s abortion trigger law over the last few months. A bill that would retroactively change court rules on when a judge can issue an injunction is making its way through the Legislature and would put a hold on the abortion ban in jeopardy.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, is the sponsor of the joint resolution. He was not present at the Wednesday demonstration, nor was the lawmaker who brought forward the 2020 trigger law, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton.