Senators have greenlit a pair of bills to further restrict abortion in Utah, and killed the only bill to make it to a standing committee that would have eased some of the rules imposed by the state’s legally contested trigger law.
The most controversial of the bills, introduced by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, would ban abortion clinics from operating in Utah. It also, along with a bill from Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, would cut off an exception for rape and incest victims included in the blocked abortion law at 18 weeks.
Both bills passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee 5-2 on Wednesday evening, with the two Democrats on the committee voting against them. Another taking aim at reporting requirements for rape and incest victims from Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, failed along the same line — 2-5.
As snow continued to fall during “one of the most impactful” storms of the winter season, the committee room — which had less than 50 seats available for members of the public — was full. A rally against restrictive abortion bills scheduled for the same time as the committee was canceled due to the weather.
People on both sides of the abortion debate waited through the discussion of nine other bills, some wearing white coats to show their role as health care providers.
Under Lisonbee’s “Abortion Changes,” Utah would stop issuing licenses to abortion clinics starting in May, and in 2024 would prohibit them from operating altogether. It would also make violating Utah’s abortion laws unprofessional conduct for health care providers.
That bill, which was publicly released one week ago, is moving quickly through the Legislature. It passed out of the House last Friday. Since being introduced, the bill has added 19 Republican cosponsors, in addition to its Senate sponsor, Sen. Dan McCay, the author of the abortion trigger ban.
It also does what Gov. Spencer Cox called “a cleanup” of the trigger law, clarifying the definition of abortion and when it makes an exception for the health of the mother and for a fetal abnormality. Cox has said he supports the bill.
Much of the debate around the bill has so far focused on how getting rid of abortion clinics might impact the price of a surgical abortion, with some doctors testifying that many insurance plans don’t cover abortions and that out-of-pocket costs in a hospital can reach as much as $25,000.
“Thankfully, right now, I tell them that there’s a clinic where there’s the same doctors, the same excellent care, where they can still get non-judgmental, safe, respectful care, but it will cost much less,” said Misha Pangasa, an OB-GYN, of situations where expectant mothers need an abortion.
Prior to the committee meeting, the bill was amended to clarify that abortion clinics, like Planned Parenthood and Wasatch Women’s Center, may reapply for licensing as another type of clinic and continue providing abortions under the exception if it “meets certain standards.”
Those standards would require it to meet the state’s definition of a hospital. Alexandra Eller, a maternal-fetal medicine doctor, said during public comment that it would be so difficult to accomplish, that “it’s kind of the same thing” as closing down all abortion clinics from operating in any capacity.
[Get the latest Utah political news in the new Daily Buzz email newsletter. Sign up here.]
Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, of Salt Lake City, sits on the committee. Pointing to a law passed by the Legislature in 2011, she said that the health care facilities who would take on most abortions under the bill have the ability to refuse to provide abortions, even under the exceptions, on religious or moral grounds.
“That language needs to be revoked and repealed,” she said.
Freshman Democratic Sen. Jen Plumb, also of Salt Lake City, attempted to amend the maternal health exceptions to include mental health issues that would impact a person’s ability to give birth. Plumb, who is a physician, said that because some psychiatric medications cannot be taken during pregnancy, women have to choose between their mental health and having a child.
“It’s a really hard decision for women to have to decide, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a mom, but these medicines that keep me mom-ish, they’ll hurt my baby, so I have to make that decision,’” Plumb said.
Both Lisonbee and McCay said they disapproved of the amendment. “It just opens wide open the statute for individuals who want to claim a mental issue for purposes of obtaining an abortion,” Lisonbee said.
Like the vote on the bill, the amendment failed 5-2.
“I don’t mean to sound exaggeratory with this, but that’s like the stuff of war crimes to me — to force someone to be mentally unwell and psychotic, and carrying as a vessel,” Plumb said during summation for the amendment.
While also providing some additional services for sexual assault victims and training for law enforcement, Birkeland’s proposal would require doctors to document how they are verifying that rape and incest victims have reported the crimes to police.
“We’re not asking (doctors) to do it any certain fashion, but we should be having that data,” Birkeland said. “How are you verifying? Are they bringing an affidavit, are they bringing in a case number, or are they just saying I called police and you’re taking them at their word?”
The abortion trigger law already requires victims to make a report to law enforcement before seeking an abortion. Birkeland said data collected from doctors on how they’re verifying it would inform future policy around abortion.
Yvette Romero Coronado is a social worker who said she works with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. She said she opposes the bill because of how difficult it might be for a woman in an abusive relationship to report her sexual assault to law enforcement, and she asked lawmakers to consider safety risks for those experiencing abuse.
Riebe’s bill attempted to lift a requirement under the abortion ban — which is currently held up in court— that doctors verify that sexual assault and incest victims have reported the crimes to law enforcement. The bill would not have impacted a legal requirement that doctors report child abuse to law enforcement.
The bill has sat with the Senate Rules Committee since the first day of the legislative session in mid-January and was not assigned to a standing committee until Tuesday.
It is one of a few abortion-related bills Democrats have put forward this session — one would remove criminal penalties for abortions, and another would offer protections for victims who report to law enforcement before seeking an abortion. Both have sat with the House Rules Committee for weeks.
Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber spoke in support of the bill, saying it gives doctors options.
Some individuals who are against abortion said they were concerned the bill would keep perpetrators from being held accountable, while others testified that it empowers victims to make their own choices about how their cases are handled.
Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, the executive director of the nonprofit Rape Recover Center, said the organization supports the bill, as does Katherine Aguilera, the associate director of domestic violence shelter Peace House in Park City.
“Survivors thrive by being able to control their lives and making choices, including making legal and medical decisions, that support their safety, health and well-being,” Aguilera said.