The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court has once again reignited political debates about the future of Roe v. Wade, with many conservative lawmakers itching to see it overturned.
Roe affirms a constitutional right to privacy inherent in the 14th Amendment which protects the right to have an abortion. (A subsequent case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, gave us our current framework that restricts government from placing an undue burden on a person seeking abortion until the point of viability.)
In Utah, losing this constitutional right to access abortion would have disastrous consequences. Earlier this year, Utah passed a new law that, in the event Roe is overturned, would make an abortion a second-degree felony with a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. I remain astounded at the severity of that punishment, especially from a Legislature that has meticulously pursued criminal justice reform over the past several years.
Contrary to stereotypes that exist about those who seek abortion, we know that the majority of women who have abortions are already mothers. As one mother told me of her experience, “I know what it means to have a child. This was not a flippant choice.”
If Roe is overturned, Utah’s law could send parents like her to prison. The felony wouldn’t only apply to a physician who performs an abortion in a clinic, but also to a person who performed their own abortion at home. If something went wrong and they went to the hospital for assistance, they could still be charged with a felony. In fact, this exact scenario was discussed by lawmakers in a committee meeting. They voted for the bill anyway.
Of course, Utah’s abortion ban would not apply to everyone equally. Those who could afford to travel out of state could bypass the law altogether. Those who couldn’t would risk prosecution, which is all but guaranteed to come down unevenly along the same race and class lines as everything else in the criminal justice system.
Criminalizing abortion also means that miscarriage and stillbirth become suspect under the law — something many women have been prosecuted for even while Roe remains intact. This, in turn, creates a disincentive for people to seek medical help when a miscarriage happens.
Most conservative lawmakers do not truly understand the ramifications of the abortion bills they pass. A few do, with bone-chilling lucidity. But most seem as if they are simply opposed to abortion at a personal level and have hitched their wagon to what is, in their minds, the most straightforward way to make a world without abortion a reality.
There is a big difference between criminalizing abortion and actually reducing abortion. It will never be possible to eliminate abortion altogether; there will always be deeply personal reasons why a person will choose to have one. But there are many, many ways that a government can help reduce both abortion and miscarriage rates without criminal prosecutions and without overturning Roe.
Instead of trying to send moms to prison, Utah could put its energy into expanding access to health care, including contraception. We could improve the quality of sex education taught in public schools, including healthy relationships and consent. We could clean our dirty air, which has been linked to increased miscarriages. We could make it easier for working parents to be able to support a family by increasing the minimum wage, creating more affordable housing and guaranteeing paid family and sick leave.
In short, we could reduce abortion and miscarriage rates by addressing some of the reasons pregnancies end in the first place.
There is a tremendous amount of common ground available if conservative politicians want to prevent abortion while improving people’s lives and respecting their agency. It is time for the far right to let go of its quest to overturn Roe and focus on this shared vision instead.
Lauren Simpson is the policy director for Alliance for a Better Utah.