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Utah lawmaker wants it illegal to transfer fetal remains outside of state other than for burial

Current law allows donation of fetuses or fetal tissue for transplantation, therapy, research or education

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed bill in Utah would make it illegal to transfer fetal remains outside of the state for any purpose other than burial.

Under HB231, anyone who transports aborted or miscarried fetal remains across state lines, or who arranges to do so, could face a class B misdemeanor. The bill would not apply to fetuses less than 20 weeks gestational age.

Last year, Utah legislators passed a law that requires health care providers to take care of the final disposition of fetal remains to prevent them from being treated as medical waste. The law now requires providers to give women a form that asks how they want the remains taken care of, with the option of not selecting a method.

“I became aware that aborted fetuses in Utah are shipped out of state, where of course Utah’s laws no longer apply. And so I wondered why they do that, and started looking into that. And it occurred to me that we could probably use a bill that would close that loophole,” said HB231 sponsor Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan.

She said she quickly requested the bill, but she didn’t request priority status for it — something that legislators can do in Utah to make sure their bills get seen. Acton said Monday she was surprised to see the bill had been drafted without her seeking that priority status.

“And I think it’s a good thing. So I was really happy that it did come back. I was still wrestling with whether or not I would bring the bill,” Acton said.

“It really doesn’t preempt anyone from having an abortion, so I didn’t really think of it as an abortion bill, per se. It doesn’t affect the woman seeking an abortion at all, it will simply affect what is done afterward,” she said.

But the bill as written would create a contradiction in the state’s law as it does not delete existing language that allows a fetus or fetal tissue donated under the Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act to be transferred out of Utah. The bill that passed last year did not affect the disposition of fetal tissue used for genetic study.

Like other states, Utah has a Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which outlines how human bodies or tissue can be donated after death for the purpose of transplantation, therapy, research or education. Under the act, fetuses can be donated for those purposes unless prohibited elsewhere in Utah Code, which it does not appear to do.

When asked about that issue, Acton said she was not aware that fetuses could be donated in Utah. She said she plans to work with bill drafters to match her intent, which is to allow only burial or cremation to occur if fetuses are transferred out of state.

Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said she was “surprised” to see the bill and isn’t sure what issue it’s meant to address. Last year’s fetal remains bill already ensured that women will have a right to determine what happens to aborted or miscarried fetuses, she said.

“And we have worked extensively with the health department and we’re educating women” about their options, Galloway said.

She said the organization’s attorneys are reviewing the bill, but as written it’s unclear how it will affect Planned Parenthood and women who have miscarriages or choose to abort.

Mary Taylor, president of Pro-Life Utah, said the bill will “close up some loopholes” in the law.

The fetal remains bill that passed last year “was to ensure that we would have a respectful treatment of those remains, and this just closes a little loophole to make sure that we don’t go out of state to get around that,” she said.

Taylor said she was not aware of the “dilemma” presented in the law through the Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, but her group does not support fetuses getting donated for research.

Galloway said it appears the bill will “add administrative paperwork to an already burdened health department and other civic organizations.”

All fetal remains from abortions performed at the Planned Parenthood’s Utah clinics are sent to a lab out of state for pathology, where Galloway says the organization honors women’s disposition requests.

Acton said she intends for the bill to require pathology to take place in Utah.

Another bill seeks to make the Utah Department of Health’s abortion education information more accessible. HB164 would require the Utah Department of Health to include its abortion information module on its website for women who want to view it before an abortion. The bill would also delete a provision in current law that requires abortion clinics or hospitals to provide instructions about how to request a printed copy of the health department’s information before an abortion.