Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Utah’s opportunity to show compassion on abortion policy

The state has a reputation as a well-governed conservative place unafraid of tackling hard issues. We can continue that legacy with abortion law

SHARE Opinion: Utah’s opportunity to show compassion on abortion policy
Steel fencing and barricades are shown protecting the Supreme Court Building in Washington

Steel fencing and barricades surround the Supreme Court in the days before the court overturned Roe v. Wade, which federally protected one’s right to abortion.

Gemunu Amarasinghe, Associated Press

Not long after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, erasing the constitutional right to an abortion, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said it was time for America’s anti-abortion faction to “control and improve conservative governance rather than (be) undermined by it.”

“Well-governed conservative states like Utah could model new approaches to family policy. …” he said.

That sentence is remarkable, coming from such a respected commentator. It recognizes Utah’s well-earned reputation as a state that goes beyond the barriers of political division and crafts solutions to vexing problems. Utah demonstrated this when lawmakers, religious leaders and interest groups reached groundbreaking compromises over issues such as immigration and the intersection of religious liberty and LGBTQ rights in March 2015.

Is Utah up to that again?

While a judge granted a temporary restraining order Monday against Utah’s abortion trigger law, it’s reasonable to assume the Supreme Court’s ruling means the state will have an opportunity soon to chart its path forward on this important issue.

The trigger law alone isn’t enough, and the decisions made in coming months could signal another triumphant moment for Utah, and another opportunity to once again lead the nation. But that will be true only if Utah finds ways to honor the sanctity of life, not just to limit abortions.

As we said last week, the decision to turn the issue of abortion back to the states was the correct one. It was a ruling that respected life, even as it returned this important issue back to the levels of government closest to the people.

But every large shift in public policy comes with consequences, intended or not.

In 2019, there were 2,776 abortions in Utah, according to the Utah Department of Health. Of those, roughly 1,804, or 65%, were performed for socioeconomic reasons. While the figures have declined substantially over the years (Utah’s abortion rate was 48% less in 2019 than in 1990, despite a substantial increase in population), the new Utah law triggered by the Supreme Court decision would surely result in more births, and especially to women of meager incomes and a lack of access to care.

That means Utah should commit substantially more money, time and resources to prenatal, birthing and postnatal care, as well as to adoption services. It also means greater funding for the care of special-needs children.

A database provided by the March of Dimes and Deloitte identifies several shortcomings in terms of maternal care in parts of Utah, especially rural areas. Salt Lake County has full access to maternity care and an infant mortality rate of 5.2%, but Iron County has low access, with just one hospital offering OB-GYN care and a birth center, and an infant mortality rate of 6.6%.

Emery, Kane, Daggett, Juab, Wayne, Morgan, Rich and Paiute counties are considered maternity care deserts by the database, with no access to maternity care. In Wayne County, 11.32% of babies born have a low birth weight. Yes, their populations are small and scattered, but they represent a combined 4,655 women. Less than half of Utah’s counties provide full access to maternity care and services, with the rest landing somewhere between.

The first step should be greater funding to provide clinics and birthing centers within reasonable access to all Utah women. Proper prenatal care translates into healthier babies, and proper postnatal care helps women through the sometimes difficult first months of a baby’s life.

Utah already provides some funding for adoption services. Women who voluntarily place their babies for adoption may be eligible to receive cash payments for up to 12 months and assistance finding a job, according to the Department of Workforce Services. People adopting special-needs children also receive help. State lawmakers need to revisit these programs and make sure cash allotments are large enough to ensure the proper care for all at-risk Utah babies. 

One of the most challenging actions in Utah’s trigger law may be in understanding its list of exceptions under which it still would allow abortions. Proper health care requires that there must be exceptions, including in caring for the health of the mother.

Rape and incest are also listed. The challenge here is that the trigger law, once enacted, requires women to file police reports in order to qualify. That’s a big ask for women who already have been traumatized by violent crime, and perhaps especially for the victims of incest, who often face the difficult task of filing charges against a close relative. Can Utah and the nation find reasonable, compassionate ways to help women who are likely experiencing the greatest pain and anxiety of their lives?

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network reports that roughly two-thirds of all sexual assaults go unreported. It found that 20% of those who didn’t report feared retaliation, while 13% believed the police wouldn’t help. Unfortunately, their fears are not unreasonable. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators go free.

Grace Howard, an assistant professor of justice studies at San Jose State University and a survivor of sexual violence, told NBC News, “I fear that this will push people away from exercising that legal loophole that would allow a rape victim to receive this form of care.”

Utah lawmakers would do a great service if they could change these statistics, each of which represents is a real person. They should find ways to make the process of qualifying for an exemption under such circumstances more discreet and nurturing.

Special interest groups like to paint culture-war issues such as abortion in black-and-white terms. The truth is complex and certainly more nuanced. Compassionate solutions take a lot of effort to craft. While some states try to ban all abortions without exception, Utah lawmakers must show that the state’s regard for the sanctity of life can, and must, coexist with compassion and a meaningful regard for the living. If they do, the state once again will be a shining beacon.