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Opinion: Utah needs to be responsible about banning abortion — how will we support pregnant women?

Utah abortion laws currently have no budget to support women through pregnancy and child raising. If we take away abortion, we need a plan for the mothers and children

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Women hold pink signs protesting abortion bans. One sign promotes ‘abortion healthcare.’

A rally against abortion bans as part of Stop the Bans Day of Action at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. With the leaked Supreme Court draft overturning Roe v. Wade, many wonder what Utah will do with its trigger law.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Under the terms of SB174, Utah will ban almost all abortions if the Supreme Court officially rules that states may do so — something that could happen as early as next month. This law will ban all abortions at any point during pregnancy except in the cases of rape, incest, preserving the health of the mother, or if the fetus is judged to be incapable of sustaining life or basic mental function. While the mother (and the father, by implication) will not be prosecuted for requesting an abortion, a doctor performing the procedure — when not permitted under the exceptions — would be charged with a second-degree felony.  

In practical terms, this is a law against performing an unauthorized abortion — not against having one. Should a Utah resident opt to go out-of-state or out of the country for an abortion, or purchase a drug without a prescription that will induce one, the law has little relevance. This implies that the law is almost exclusively for women who cannot avail themselves of these options to end an unwanted pregnancy. These women are being required by the state government to carry their babies to term and either raise the children themselves or see to it that they are cared for by others. It is easy to predict that this will apply almost exclusively to women who are relatively younger, poorer, less educated and less connected to service-providing organizations. 

The law creates very different obligations than a mere ban on homicide. After all, choosing not to kill someone does not obligate you to become that person’s legal guardian and to provide financial and legal support to him or her. The ban on murder creates no obligations on those who comply. The ban on abortion does. Of course, the obligations also flow from having unprotected sex — but under SB174 the option of legally terminating a pregnancy has been removed for a particular class of women. Thus, the state has changed the types of obligations they face. 

When a state adopts laws that require its citizens to take on certain obligations, it creates duties for itself. And most states take this seriously.

When states issue regulations regarding setting up a business or a trust, they also make sure that these rules are widely known and even provide consultants to walk people through the process. This is also true with respect to tax laws.

The state of Utah has mandated that all children should attend school until age 18 — which obligates the state to provide the resources and direction to support a vast public school system at the cost of around $5 billion each year.

Likewise, since the state requires drivers to pass a test to get a license, it made subsidized driver education available to all high school students. Even when the state seizes property under eminent domain, it must provide compensation at fair market value.

Time and again we see state governments stepping up to help citizens fulfill their legally mandated obligations. 

If it goes forward with banning almost all abortions, the state of Utah must accept the special obligation to proactively offer services, advice, support and other measures to ensure that all women — especially those with fewer resources and support — will be able to go through pregnancy and delivery safely and successfully.

The state also has a duty to provide the full range of services and support for the early care of the child. To this we could add a special obligation to support young women with reproductive education and counseling to help minimize unwanted pregnancies, as well as counseling and support for adoption. For that matter, in the event the mother decides to keep the child after all, the state should accept responsibility for helping the child reach adulthood.  

It is noteworthy that SB174 was adopted with no budgetary provisions. In other words, banning abortion was not seen as creating a duty of care. This is a grave error.  

A state government that obligates women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term cannot shirk this duty or pass it off to some other entities without violating the basic ethic of fairness. The state cannot fulfill the obligation by counting on federal or municipal programs to do the job, since these entities did not create the obligation and may decide to suspend their services at any moment. It also cannot rely on private organizations or extended family to carry this burden. The duty is the state’s alone since it flows from its own law.  

Before the trigger law is activated, legislators, the governor’s office and the full range of appropriate state agencies must seriously work through the implications of these obligations. Alternatively, the state must reconsider the mandate.  

Kendall Stiles is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and resides in Springville. His views do not represent BYU or its sponsoring institution.