The landmark abortion decisions many Utah policy-makers were hoping for from the U.S. Supreme Court didn't come this year, once again leaving conservative legislators and Gov. Norm Bangerter wondering where they go now with the controversial subject.
The high court ruled Monday 5-4 to strike down a Minnesota law requiring both parents of an unmarried minor be notified before an abortion is performed, but upheld by a 6-3 vote an Ohio law that requires only one parent of an unmarried minor be notified.Utah already has a notification law which says the doctor performing the abortion shall, if possible, notify the parents of a minor girl getting an abortion and the husband of any married woman. That law was held constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, said Richard Strong, executive director of Legislative Research and General Counsel.
Strong said because the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling Monday only requires one parent be notified, Utah's law - which says both parents be notified - may have to be changed slightly.
However, Utah's law is unenforced and unenforceable, said Rep. Pat Nix, R-Orem, a supporter of tougher abortion laws.
"All the doctor has to do is dial a wrong number and hang up after one ring. It doesn't work at all. We really have no parental notification here," she said.
In the 1990 session last February, Utah Republican lawmakers struggled to debate tough abortion bills. Bangerter suggested they wait until abortion decisions by the high court were announced this summer. He even asked GOP legislative colleagues not to introduce any abortion bills.
But two were introduced, one mirroring the high court's Webster decision a year ago - which said states could control publicly funded abortions and abortions in public facilities, which Utah already does - and a second bill sponsored by Nix and others that would have outlawed abortions as birth control, allowing them only in the cases of rape, incest or extreme fetal deformity or if the pregnancy threatened the mother's life. (A bill similar to that one passed the Idaho Legislature but was vetoed by Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus.)
Finally, Bangerter and GOP legislative leaders prevailed and none of the abortion bills were even debated in the Legislature. They both died in the House Rules Committee.
"That was a responsible thing for us to do," said Majority Leader Craig Moody, R-Sandy. Utah already has a law that would be allowed Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Moody said he believes legislators will reject, again, adopting a tough law that would be challenged in federal court.
"We'll go as far as the (high) court will allow, I'm sure. But we don't have the resources - especially facing a $90 million cut in revenues over the food tax - to be spending money fighting an abortion bill," Moody said.
Nix, who is a member of a special abortion task force, said her committee is still hearing testimony, and she's not sure what it will recommend. "I'm sure we'll have some kind of (abortion) bill. But whether it goes in the direction we wanted (in the last session) or not, I can't say now. (To succeed), we must have a consensus about an abortion bill, however."
Speaking about Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling, ACLU Utah Chapter Director Michelle Parish-Pixler said: "The ruling is a mixed blessing. I sympathize with parents who want to be involved in that decision, but the problem is that teens who want to get an abortion without notifying parents often have an estranged relationship. They are afraid that they will be beaten, or often these are incest cases. We support the right of the girl or young woman to make the decision about whether to bear a child or not."
But an anti-abortion group leader welcomed the ruling.
"We think that (strong parental consent) is wonderful," said Rosa Goodnight, president, Right To Life Of Utah. "That is the law we have sought in Utah to be passed, and because of Roe vs. Wade we have not been able to pass such legislation. Now we have an open door to do so."
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor voted in the 5-4 majority striking down the Minnesota law, but switched sides in voting 6-3 to uphold the Ohio law. O'Connor is viewed as a pivotal vote on the future of the court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion.
Today marked the first time since joining the court in 1981 that she voted to strike down a state-imposed restriction on abortion. However, Monday's action did not appear to carry major impact for the Roe vs. Wade decision.