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Here’s what will happen in Utah if Roe v. Wade is overturned

Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2021.
Abortion rights advocates and anti-abortion protesters demonstrate in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Washington, as the court hears arguments in a case from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability. If the court rules in favor of the Mississippi law, it would effectively overturn Roe V. Wade, deferring the issue of abortion rights to state legislatures. A number of states, Utah included, have passed “trigger laws” that would impose tight restrictions on abortion currently deemed illegal.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in what is the most direct challenge to the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade in decades.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization disputes a 2018 Mississippi law that would ban abortions 15 weeks after a woman becomes pregnant. Under the precedent set by Roe v. Wade in 1973, then upheld by Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey in 1992, the Mississippi law is illegal.

But the makeup of the Supreme Court today is markedly different than it was in 1992, and on Wednesday the court’s conservative justices showed support for overturning the standard upheld 30 years ago, which prevents states from prohibiting an abortion before a fetus is viable.

Legal experts don’t expect a decision until late spring or early summer. If the court rules in favor of the Mississippi law, it would effectively overturn Roe v. Wade, deferring abortion rights to state legislatures.

What’s in Utah’s trigger bill?

Utah is one of 21 states with a so-called trigger law that would impose tight, currently illegal, restrictions on abortion should the case be overturned.

Approved by the full Utah Legislature and signed into law by Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert in 2020, SB174 would prohibit a person from receiving an abortion with certain exceptions. Here’s what’s in the bill:

  • A woman can still receive an abortion if the pregnancy poses a life-threatening risk to the woman or “a serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”
  • An exemption is also granted if two physicians who practice “maternal fetal medicine” concur that the fetus “has a defect that is uniformly diagnosable and uniformly lethal or ... has a severe brain abnormality that is uniformly diagnosable.”
  • Those pregnant as a result of rape or incest are also eligible for an exemption. The physician must verify with law enforcement that the incident was reported.
  • Anyone found guilty of performing an abortion outside the scope of the bill will be charged with a second degree felony.
  • If a clinic performs an abortion outside the scope of the bill, it could have its license revoked.

The prospect of Roe v. Wade being overturned has some Utah lawmakers, including Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, “hopeful.” For years many politicians in the Beehive State, Acton one of them, have put forth bills aimed at limiting abortion.

In 2019, she sponsored HB136, a bill that would shorten Utah’s window for legal abortions to 18 weeks. The bill is currently being held up by a lawsuit and will be thrown out if Roe v. Wade is overturned and Utah’s trigger law takes effect, she says.

“Life is the beginning of everything else, and we want to have a culture of life in Utah, not a culture of death. So for me, I have no qualms about it,” she said of Roe potentially being overturned, noting that she wants to see adoption over abortion in Utah.

It’s similar to the point made by Justice Amy Coney Barrett Wednesday, who focused on the availability of safe-haven laws that protect parents from legal troubles if they voluntarily give up a newborn baby.

“I would rather deal with helping women remove the crisis from the crisis pregnancy,” Acton said.

Between the exemptions laid out in the trigger law and Utah’s proximity to other states, she says she isn’t “concerned about someone’s ability to obtain an abortion.”

“Really, abortion is a state issue and should be a state issue. ... There will always probably be states that have abortion, like Nevada,” she said.

For Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, the prospect of someone leaving the state to get an abortion is unconscionable.

“Women of means will always have a way to access their care,” she said. “But let’s talk about women who hardly have the disposable money to feed their families”

“I just find it so insensitive to leave out the people who struggle to get common health care. We say, ‘Oh, they’ll be fine going to Nevada.’ And they don’t even have a bus pass to make it to the public library or someone to watch their children if they needed to go out of town for health care. How insensitive are these people?”

Regardless of the ruling, Galloway said, “Planned Parenthood will still be here in Utah.”

Most Utahns turn to Planned Parenthood for family planning, she said — though being the largest abortion provider in the state “seems to get all the news and notoriety,” it’s only one of the many services it provides.

What do Utahns think?

While there might be a majority of lawmakers in favor of repealing Roe v. Wade and seeing the trigger law take effect, a recent poll suggests Utahns do not support restricting abortion access.

Nearly 80% of Utahns say the state doesn’t need new restrictions on abortions, while 52% would vote to uphold Roe v. Wade if they had the opportunity, according to a 2020 poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, the Alliance for a Better Utah and the ACLU of Utah.

Roughly 38% said they would vote to repeal.

A recent Pew Research Survey found similar results nationally. About 59% of Americans said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and 39% said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

“When they were informed about how many restrictions on abortion already exist in Utah, Utahns far and away do not want more restrictions,” said Katie Matheson, deputy director for Alliance for a Better Utah, a progressive government accountability group. “This will be the ultimate restriction. And it’s going to be a real burden for people.”

While restricting abortion may seem like a key issue for conservative voters, Matheson said it’s a vocal minority that gives it airtime.

“Nobody wants to deal with this anymore. The public doesn’t want to deal with this anymore. Lawmakers don’t want to deal with this anymore. As always, it’s a small group of extremists who just keep pushing this issue,” she said.

By deferring the issue to state lawmakers, Acton said public opinion on abortion will become apparent in upcoming elections. She represents a relatively purple district — West Jordan — and said that if her constituents don’t share her belief on abortion, they can let her know via their ballot.

“Most of my constituents are pro-life ... but if the people in my constituency do not like the way I voted on an issue, they can vote me out and they will vote me out,” she said. “And so I think that’s what will happen nationally.”