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Why a Utah doctors group voted to oppose abortion ban in first trimester

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, June 16, 2021.
The Utah Medical Association passed a resolution over the weekend voicing its opposition to an abortion ban in the first trimester, members of the physicians advocacy group confirmed.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The Utah Medical Association passed a resolution over the weekend voicing its opposition to an abortion ban in the first trimester, members of the physicians' advocacy group confirmed Tuesday.

Dr. Lori Gawron, a Salt Lake City obstetrician/gynecologist who served as a delegate this year in the Utah Medical Association, described the move as an important piece in the abortion debate in Utah.

"I think that state medical societies need to take a stance against state legislation that restricts access to health care. Previously, the Utah Medical Association stood more neutral on certain abortion legislation, and would come out against interference with patient-physician relationship or mandatory medical procedures, but hadn't previously taken a strong stance against restrictions that prevent access to abortion care," she said.

"And so this is a change in their approach and policy, and as a health care provider and OB/GYN who takes care of pregnant patients and understands the gray area of pregnancy ... I think it's really important to protect women's access to safe and legal abortion."

Utah Medical Association CEO Michelle McOmber declined to comment on the resolution. A copy of the resolution has not been released to the public.

The group's decision to take a stance on the issue comes as the country faces a reckoning over abortion rights, with a Texas law now in effect that bans all abortions starting around the sixth week of pregnancy. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the law to take effect.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also considering a Mississippi abortion rights case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, that could lead the conservative-leaning court to diminish the scope of woman's right to an abortion provided in Roe v. Wade.

Roe v. Wade allows for abortions up until viability, which is considered around 20 weeks. Should it be overturned, a "trigger" law will take effect in Utah that would prohibit all abortions — except for in cases of rape and incest — as soon as a woman has a pregnancy test, effectively banning most abortions.

SB174 would also allow abortions in cases of "substantial impairment" of the mother's health, or if the fetus has a lethal birth defect or severe brain abnormality that would render it in a vegetative state. Any abortions performed that do not fall under those exceptions would be a second-degree felony in Utah.

Currently, Utah law allows for abortions to occur into the second trimester, up to 18 weeks.

Gawron called the state’s trigger law another important reason for the Utah Medical Association to take a stance. She said if a ban takes effect, it will endanger women’s health as they seek abortions outside a safe health care setting.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who is also a medical doctor, said the association has been discussing the issue since its annual delegates meeting in 2020. Last year, the group decided to study the issue and weigh a recommendation during this year’s meeting, which happened on Saturday.

The language Utah medical leaders proposed last week was controversial for some, Ward said, and the board’s vote was close.

The group ultimately decided to outline its opposition to abortion bans in the first trimester, which is up to 13 weeks. The resolution does not say it supports abortion, nor that it supports abortion bans after week 13, according to Ward.

"So that's kind of a middle-of-the-road position, because that's not Roe v. Wade," he said. "That cuts back considerably from Roe v. Wade — a woman might be forbidden to get an abortion in the second trimester."

Ward also described the resolution as an "important step" — as in the past, the group has typically taken firm stands if medically inaccurate legislation was proposed, or legislation that put limits on doctors. But when it came to limits on abortion itself, Ward said the Utah Medical Association previously remained neutral and did not oppose the trigger law when it passed.

"I do think that medical societies across all states have a really important role in standing up for the health of their patients. When a medical society takes no stance, it can often be interpreted as supporting legislation, even if that's not the intent of it. And so to have our Utah Medical Association take a stance against restrictions to health care is important because it shows that doctors are not approving of whatever language or bill that interferes with the health of our patients," Gawron said.

Contributing: Jacob Klopfenstein