If the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973 had never happened, would politicians, doctors, victims’ advocates and religious leaders have come together by now to craft another “Utah way” solution?

More importantly, are they willing to do so now?

If the leak of a Supreme Court draft that strikes down Roe holds, state legislatures from coast to coast will find the issue in their laps for the first time in a half-century. Some, Utah included, have “trigger” laws in place, designed to take effect the moment the court opens the door. But these laws don’t address every nuance, nor will they be immune from the push and pull of fierce ideological persuasion.

With the magnetic poles of both parties aligned to the extremes, the needs of real women, those whose personal stories don’t fit neatly into the cubbies of state laws, could suffer.   

The “Utah way” describes how various stakeholders have, at times, come together to draft compromise solutions to divisive public policy problems that have degenerated into political trench warfare in other states and in national politics. When it works, its power makes jaws drop.

The crowning achievement of this came in 2015, when all sides negotiated to craft a law that protects the rights of LGBTQ+ people as well as the rights of believers to freely exercise their religions. 

In a video commemorating that event, Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said, “The key to passage was our willingness to engage each other and always demand ... mutual respect.”

If mutual respect between LGBTQ+ leaders and devout religious organizations sounds impossible, the proof is in the relative lack of controversy between the two since then. 

But that was seven years ago, a virtual lifetime in the entropy of civil discourse. The question is whether that can happen again, with an issue such as abortion, in an age about which columnist George Will recently said, “Hysteria is the default mode of many Americans of all persuasions who engage in civic arguments.”

That hysteria has only grown in the years since 1973, when the court’s decision gave both sides the luxury of polarizing, knowing they probably wouldn’t have to come together to work out solutions — not, that is, unless someone overturned the court’s precedent.

Utah’s “trigger” law would outlaw abortions in all cases except for pregnancies that came about because of rape or incest, if the life of the mother is at risk or if two doctors practicing “maternal fetal medicine” found lethal birth defects. 

Already, some Republicans have indicated they want to do away with these exceptions. One such proposal was introduced at the party’s recent state convention, although it never came to a vote.

But even the exceptions, which existed in many state laws before 1973, raise questions. In my mind, I picture a traumatized 15-year-old girl being forced to take a witness stand to prove she was raped by a family member before the court will grant her permission to abort.

Experts say sexual assaults are massively underreported in this country. A 2016 Justice Department Report said 80% of rapes and sexual assaults are never reported.

The Brennan Center quoted a psychotherapist as saying “victims are often too ashamed to come forward. Sexual assault is a very humi­li­at­ing and dehu­man­iz­ing act against someone.” Many think, with good reason, it would be too hard to win their case in court. 

Which brings me back to that 15-year-old girl and the courage she would need.

Somewhere between the trauma of incest victims having to testify in open court and Colorado’s new law that places no restrictions on abortions at any stage of pregnancy, there lies a solution that elevates the sanctity of life without traumatizing innocent victims. A “Utah way,” in other words.

Do state politicians still have it in them? This year’s decision to scuttle the hard work of negotiation in favor of a tough new law against transgender athletes was not a good sign.

View Comments

And what of the abortion-rights groups who have been used to decades of abortion as a right? Would they come to the table knowing they face what to them is a harsh new reality?

I keep coming back to the words of Troy Williams in that video about the solution to LGTBQ+ rights and religious liberties.

“There are people who don’t believe that religious liberty can coexist with LGBTQ rights, but that’s simply not true,” he said. “We have proven that here in Utah time and time again.”

Abortion law with all its nuances — fetal viability, privacy, the rights of both the unborn and the victims, and the slow pace of the legal system — would test the wills of good-faith negotiators. But it also could let Utah, once again, shine bright.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.