A slight majority of Utahns do not support using millions of state dollars to fight the landmark abortion ruling Roe v. Wade, despite top lawmakers' statements to the contrary.
In a new Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret Morning News and KSL-TV, just over half — 52 percent — opposed a proposed law to ban most abortions in the state and the legal challenge that would be sure to follow.
Forty-one percent either strongly or somewhat favor HB235, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. The bill would ban abortions except in cases of rape, incest or extreme medical necessity for the mother. It is intended to pose a challenge to Roe, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 recognized a woman's right to have an abortion.
The poll, conducted between Feb. 6 and 8, has a 5 percent margin of error.
Ray, joined by GOP Senate leaders, has said he believes the majority of Utahns would support state efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade andmake abortion a state issue, rather than a federal one. The issue, he
said, is not about views on abortion but on the cost of taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
"The big question, I think, from the citizens is, they don't know how much money (legal costs would require,)" Ray said.
Early cost estimates ranged from $2 million to $8 million to defend the admittedly unconstitutional bill. The Utah Attorney General's Office now estimates it would cost $1.3 million — nearly $440,000 per year for three years — to litigate HB235. The bill is expected to be debated today on the House floor.
While not included in the bill's fiscal note, the AG's office has also warned lawmakers that a one-time payment of up to $2 million may be necessary to pay plaintiffs' attorneys fees, depending on the outcome of the litigation, spokesman Paul Murphy said.
Despite the poll's findings, Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said he still believes Utahns, particularly in his district, would back the abortion challenge.
"In my area, it's very strongly supported to defend the rights of the unborn," he said.
Valentine said he has received positive feedback on the abortion ban during weekly town hall meetings with his constituents, who agree with the legislative leader that $3 million is about the maximum amount that should be allocated for the legal fight.
At least one of Ray's colleagues, however, believes that the price tag for a Roe challenge is too high. Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, plans to introduce a substitute bill for a ban on abortion, but pending a challenge to Roe v. Wade from another state.
Urquhart's substitute would take HB235 back to a "trigger bill," which would ban abortions in Utah in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned through another state's legal challenge. Ray's measure originally began as a trigger bill but was substituted in committee with the more aggressive outright ban.
The substitute also allocates the money expected to be spent defending an abortion ban on the Utah Birth Defect Network and early intervention services for disabled children — a wiser use of funds, Urquhart said Friday.
"At this point, our money is better spent on programs that directly help children," he said.
Urquhart said he didn't have a sense of which bill would be more likely to receive legislative support. "I don't know whether the outright ban could get through the House," he said. "My concern is whether it should get through the House at this point."
Urquhart said he appreciates the intent of HB235 in its current form, calling Roe v. Wade "the most glaring example of judicial activism there is." But he believes Utah should not fund the fight.
The state may not have to fully foot the legal bill, however, if the bill should pass. HB235 would allow private citizens to help fund the state's legal defense through the creation of a "litigation trust account." On Friday, Ray said he had been contacted by two Utahns offering to donate money, including one apparently willing to foot the entire legal bill.
"I've got one person who said they could finance the whole thing personally," he said.
Ray said he has not spoken to that person yet and can't vouch for the validity of the offer.
At least six other states are currently considering similar abortion bans to force the Supreme Court to reconsider current case law on abortion in the United States. In addition to Roe, a 1992 opinion from the high court reaffirmed a woman's right to choose an abortion. That case, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, did allow states to place restrictions on abortion, so long as they didn't put an "undue burden" on women.
HB235 bans abortions except in cases of rape and incest, which must be supported by a report to law enforcement, or to avert a woman's death or "substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." It does not include an exception for the woman's mental health or the health of the fetus.