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Utah Legislature: House and Senate pass abortion measure

Revised bill retains 'intentional' acts that cause death of fetus

SALT LAKE CITY — A pregnant woman in Utah who intentionally causes the death of her fetus outside legal medical care could be prosecuted for criminal homicide under a bill that was introduced and approved by the Legislature on Friday.

HB462, which is an amended version of HB12, removes the word "reckless" in reference to behavior but retains "intentional" acts by the woman that cause an abortion as grounds for a charge of aggravated murder.

The measure doesn't change the state's legal abortion statutes but establishes Utah as the only state to set parameters on when a woman can be held criminally responsible for causing the end of a pregnancy at her own hand or means outside a doctor's care.

The bill, which is almost certain to be signed by Gov. Gary Herbert — as well as induce immediate calls for court actions to stop it — was passed by the Senate 23-4 about two hours after a 55-5 vote in the House.

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, praised the revisions but said the bill still amounts to government poking around in people's personal lives and doctors' offices. It is counter to GOP anti-government stance that members have invoked in speeches on other health care issues.

"Sometimes I think the disconnect between our stated beliefs and what we do are so great that we ought to have a physician assigned up here to treat some of our members for whiplash. There's that big a gap," King said.

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said that e-mails to lawmakers claiming that the measure essentially makes prosecution possible for every woman who happens to miscarry "are an absolute farce and a lie."

That didn't stop the ACLU from sending out a call to action late Friday for members to contact Herbert to advise him that the revised bill amounts to an effort to criminalize women rather than ensure their health and safety, and "like its predecessor is unacceptable political interference in a woman's most personal, private medical decision."

The bill closes a loophole in the state's criminal code and ensures that women in the future don't get off on a legal technicality revealed this past May when a pregnant 17-year-old could not be prosecuted for allegedly paying a stranger $150 to beat her into a miscarriage.

The baby survived and was born last August. It is healthy and with foster parents who are in the process of permanently adopting the child. The name of the mother has not been made public because she is a minor, and the assailant is in jail awaiting prosecution.

Wimmer and other lawmakers, including Senate sponsor Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said retooling the original bill was unnecessary and motivated only by the intentional muddling of the word "reckless" in news reports.

"This bill is about strengthening the rights of an unborn child," Dayton told members of the Senate. "This is about acknowledging them as having a right to life."

Senate Democrats said the bill as originally drafted was too broad and could have set up a host of unintended consequences resulting in any activity that might cause a miscarriage, from car accidents to falls on a hike, as reason for prosecution.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said because so many activities could be painted as reckless, the word needed to be removed. She repeated an ongoing request to the Republican majority that it promote preventing pregnancies as aggressively as it does legislation that addresses how some are ended.

Several mitigating circumstances listed in the bill that would preclude prosecution include being under age 14, refusing medical treatment or a Cesarean birth and not following standard medical advice.

The bill also adds language that defines the difference between abortion and criminal homicide of an unborn child along with removing current "prohibitions against prosecution of a woman for killing an unborn child."