Abortion rights won big this November. Will they impact Utah’s special congressional election?

Republican Celeste Maloy would vote for a national abortion ban, while Democrat Kathleen Riebe has proposed laws to limit the impact of bans.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Candidates Celeste Maloy, left, and Kathleen Riebe, running in Utah's 2nd Congressional District special election, debate at the KUED studios on the University of Utah campus on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023. Maloy and Riebe have opposing views on federal abortion policy.

On Nov. 7, Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights. Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was reelected after advertising that his opponent didn’t support abortion ban exceptions. Democrats will control the Virginia General Assembly after an election cycle in which their stance on abortion was front and center.

Could Utah’s Election Day, two weeks after the rest of the country headed to the polls, follow that pattern?

The two women facing off in the 2nd Congressional District special election — Republican Celeste Maloy and Democrat Kathleen Riebe — to replace former Rep. Chris Stewart have both talked about their positions on abortion throughout their campaigns. As potential members of Congress, they have opposing views on how the federal government should approach the issue.

After the U.S. Supreme Court reversed course in June 2022 and ruled that women no longer have a constitutional right to access an abortion, states have been left to their own policies — the legality of the procedure now varies from state to state. In Utah, abortion is currently legal up to 18 weeks, but a near-total trigger ban sits in front of the Utah Supreme Court.

In the year and a half since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, however, there have been efforts among federal lawmakers to both impose nationwide restrictions on when a pregnancy can be terminated and to widen access to such reproductive care.

If elected, Maloy would fall in with the former.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Celeste Maloy speaks during the Utah Republican Party quarterly State Central Committee meeting in Sandy on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023.

At a debate hosted by KSL News in the lead-up to the GOP primary election, Maloy said, “Too often we get caught up in the number of weeks or how to define exceptions, and what we really need to be focused on is how do we protect those who can’t protect themselves, and that is the unborn.”

“I would like to see the states move on this,” the Republican candidate continued, “but as a federal representative, I’m never going to pass up an opportunity to sponsor legislation or vote for legislation that protects the rights of the unborn to be born.”

That position earned her an endorsement from the National Right to Life Committee. The website of its political arm, the National Right to Life Victory Fund, touts her experience as a staffer for the now-retired “pro-life Congressman Stewart.”

It also attacked state lawmaker Riebe as being “pro-abortion.”

The question of where Congress should come down on abortion was not asked during a faceoff hosted by the Utah Debate Commission between Maloy and Riebe. But in an ad that hit the airwaves last week, Riebe campaigned on her opponent’s position on abortion, which she has called “extreme.”

In the ad, a man who identifies himself as a Navy veteran — and who works as the municipal director for the Utah Democratic Party — says, “Riebe knows every pregnancy is different, but Maloy supports a national ban on all abortions, even for rape or the life of the mother. That would put doctors and women in jail. Celeste Maloy is too extreme for us.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) State Sen. Kathleen Riebe listens to the discussion on SB88 during a Senate committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

Over the course of her nearly five years in the Utah Senate, Riebe has voted against bills that would implement abortion restrictions — including the enjoined 2020 trigger law — and has put forward amendments to such bills, as well as her own legislation, to try to limit the impact of bans.

Last year, she introduced a bill to remove a requirement in the state’s abortion ban that doctors verify a person who is pregnant as a result of sexual assault or incest has reported the crime to law enforcement before allowing them to access an abortion.

So, could the issue impact how Utahns vote in the special election?

Polls on abortion — and the race — are unclear. As the Republican, Maloy is the presumed front-runner in the district where Stewart beat his Democratic opponent by 25 percentage points last year.

But Riebe could have a better shot than Democrats who have vied for the seat in years past. Polling for the Utah Debate Commission conducted by Lighthouse Research put Riebe within 9 points of Maloy.

Survey results on abortion policies are all over the map. According to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, 52% of Utahns support or somewhat support the state’s paused abortion ban, while 46% disapprove or somewhat disapprove of it.

A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 5% of Utahns support a total abortion ban, and 42% feel it should be allowed in all or most cases. Polling commissioned by Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, the state’s largest abortion provider, meanwhile, indicated that 55% of Utahns think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 21.