GOP lawmakers pass abortion clinic ban in Utah, Gov. Cox expected to sign into law

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee’s bill, which would stop licensing abortion clinics in May and prohibit them from operating in January, cleared the Utah Senate on Thursday.

Abortion clinics are expected to be banned in Utah starting next year after the Senate approved a bill that builds on and refines Utah’s blocked trigger law, while abortion providers say the legislation may force elective abortions in the state to end as soon as May.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee’s, R-Clearfield, bill Abortion Changes passed in the Senate along party lines Thursday, the second to last day in the 2023 legislative session. Under the legislation, the state would stop issuing licenses to abortion clinics in May, and the facilities would be prohibited starting in January.

The Utah House now just needs to concur with two Senate amendments — both minor changes to the bill’s language.

Gov. Spencer Cox is expected to approve the legislation. Last month, he told reporters that he supports the measure, and characterized it as a “cleanup” of the 2020 trigger ban.

That law — which is currently on hold after a district court judge granted a preliminary injunction in a challenge from Planned Parenthood Association of Utah — is a near ban on abortion, with a few exceptions. While the courts consider its constitutionality, an 18-week ban has taken the trigger law’s place.

Lisonbee’s bill, which was sponsored in the Senate by trigger ban author Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, is one of several bills that have cropped up this session following the overturn of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, leaving states to shape their own abortion policies. Only bills that increase restrictions have progressed through the Legislature this session, while those put forward to limit the impacts of the ban have been held in rules committees.

“When we passed the trigger ban a few years ago, I did not anticipate that we would be here so soon,” McCay said on the Senate floor.

With more than 1,000 lines, abortion rights advocates say the full impact of the bill is unclear. Other changes from the legislation include making violations of Utah’s abortion laws unprofessional conduct for health care providers, requiring doctors to explain perinatal hospice and palliative care options as alternatives to abortion for women considering the fetal abnormality exception, and cutting off abortion for victims of sexual assault and incest at 18 weeks.

Mary Taylor, the president of Pro-Life Utah, said that while she thinks there may need to be some adjustments for medical exceptions in the future, “This bill puts Utah in a good place.”

Under the blocked ban, rape and incest victims are required to report the crime to law enforcement before seeking an abortion. Lisonbee’s bill allows for people under 14 — the age at which a person is no longer considered a “child” under Utah sex abuse laws — to seek an abortion without having to show doctors that they’ve reported a crime.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, attempted Thursday to amend the bill to raise that age to 16. In Utah, people between 14 and 16 are considered “minors,” and it is a crime for anyone 18 or older to have sex with them.

“They can’t drive a car, they can’t get a loan, they can’t get a hotel room, they can’t get a credit card,” Riebe said, adding, “A person who’s pregnant needs to have the ability to advocate for themselves.”

McCay disagreed with the amendment, saying he and Lisonbee had already made a compromise in raising the age from 12 to 14. Reibe’s amendment went on to fail in a voice vote.

According to the most recent federal abortion data, released last fall, six children under age 15 had an abortion in 2020, and 276 people between ages 15 and 19 had an abortion that year in Utah.

The day prior to the bill’s passage, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, joined by other advocacy organizations, held a news conference to outline its concerns with how the bill would impact abortion access in the state.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jason Stevenson, Director of Public Policy at Planned Parenthood, speaks during a news conference to discuss the bills being considered by the Legislature that would limit abortion access in Utah, at the Capitol, on Wednesday, March 1, 2023.

“HB467 prohibits the new licensing of abortion clinics starting May 3, and forces any clinic to stop providing abortions when their existing license expires. However, the hospital-only restriction of this bill would stop these clinics from providing abortions anyway on May 3,” said Jason Stevenson, the public policy director for Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

Lisonbee has said abortion clinics may apply for a license to operate as clinics that meet the state’s definition of a “hospital” under its abortion laws. While that definition includes general hospitals, it also includes clinics “certified by the department as providing equipment and personnel sufficient in quantity and quality to provide the same degree of safety as ... a general hospital licensed by the department.”

Planned Parenthood’s Stevenson disagrees.

“Allowing some clinics to ... be viewed as a hospital and offer these services doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to cause additional restrictions,” he said Wednesday.

Hospitals — especially those owned by religious institutions — have the ability in Utah to deny abortion care, even if it is sought under one of the exceptions in the law. Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla put forward a substitute that would repeal the measure giving health care facilities permission to turn abortion patients away.

“I recognize this is not an easy issue,” McCay said, before saying he didn’t support the substitute because he felt more conversation was needed on the topic. It failed in a voice vote.

Planned Parenthood — which operates one of two clinics that offer surgical abortion, and three of four that give abortion medication — provided 2,818 abortions in Utah last year. Of those, 47 were performed for women who had experienced a miscarriage or pregnancy complications.

Although hospitals don’t currently perform elective abortions, while they remain legal in Utah, hospitals would likely take over the state’s entire burden of providing abortion care.

Like she did in an earlier committee hearing, Sen. Jen Plumb, D-Salt Lake City, tried on the Senate floor to amend the health of the mother exception to include mental health. The amendment, as it did in committee, failed.

Representatives from both Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, which is also a party in the lawsuit challenging the trigger ban, said this bill has the potential to “disrupt” the ongoing litigation. Suing to enjoin Lisonbee’s bill — or other bills passed this session that would impact abortion access — is also on the table, they said.

“It’s no secret that the ACLU of Utah and others in the room today are always looking out for possible constitutional violations that are embedded in the laws that come out of this body,” said Brittney Nystrom, the executive director of the ACLU of Utah said at Wednesday’s news conference. “So we will be taking a close look at laws that restrict rights and freedoms of individuals and in making decisions on whether to continue those challenges in court.”