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Senate president calls Utah’s abortion ban constitutional, asks that it take effect

A legislative committee voted 8-7 along party lines to file a ‘friend of the court’ brief with the Utah Supreme Court in support of Utah’s 2020 abortion law

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Hundreds rally for abortion rights at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Hundreds rally for abortion rights at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on May 3, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Utah Senate President J. Stuart Adams insists Utah’s abortion law is constitutional and should be allowed to take effect even as the Utah Supreme Court is considering it.

The 2020 law, which bans abortion under most circumstances, is on hold amid a legal challenge by Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and the Utah chapter of the ACLU.

“I personally believe that the legislation passed is constitutional,” said Adams, R-Layton, placing a motion before the Legislative Management Committee Tuesday to direct legislative counsel to file a friend-of-the-court brief “asking the Utah Supreme Court to allow the statute banning abortions to remain in effect and enforceable while the statute’s constitutionality is being litigated.”

The committee, comprised of legislative leaders, voted 8-7 along party lines to direct their counsel to draft the brief.

Adams said he believes the U.S. Supreme Court “got it right” when it ruled in June to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that recognized women’s right to abortion, returning the issue to the states to determine their respective policies.

“I believe this is within our prerogative as a Legislature to decide what direction we want to go with this. Other states have gone other directions. I believe it’s surely within the Legislature’s right to make those decisions, as the Supreme Court has indicated,” he said.

Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, responded to the committee’s decision in a statement Thursday:

“It’s extremely disappointing that the Utah Legislature has once again decided to insert itself in the middle of people’s private health care decisions by voting to submit a brief in the lawsuit against Utah’s cruel ban on abortion.

“To be clear: Utah’s abortion ban remains blocked by the courts and abortion is still accessible in the state. Planned Parenthood will always stand alongside our patients and providers — no matter what.”

In 2020, Utah lawmakers passed a trigger law that would ban most abortions if the Roe decision was overturned.

Utah’s law went into effect on June 24, the same day the Supreme Court handed down its 5-4 decision overturning Roe.

SB174 allows abortions only if the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest, or if two physicians who practice maternal fetal medicine both determine that the fetus “has a defect that is uniformly diagnosable and uniformly lethal or ... has a severe brain abnormality that is uniformly diagnosable.”

Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and the ACLU of Utah challenged the constitutionality of the law in state court. Third District Court Judge Andrew Stone issued a preliminary injunction that temporarily prevents the law from taking effect. The Utah Supreme Court recently declined to lift the injunction so enforcement of the law remains on hold.

The sponsor of SB174, Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said in a statement that “Utah has been at the forefront of fighting for life.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the nearly 50-year-old Roe decision “was a monumental victory for human life. We will continue to vigorously defend the unborn and prohibit elective abortion, standing up for those who cannot defend themselves,” McCay said.

Democrats serving on the Legislative Management Committee asked, as the respective legislative houses prepare for the 2023 general session, how many legislative attorneys general would be tasked with preparing the amicus brief.

Legislative General Counsel John Fellows said he and Associate General Counsel Victoria Ashby consulted and decided to pull one attorney off his regular duties to work on litigation and reassigned his bills to other staff.

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, said he’d prefer to delay taking action to give all lawmakers the opportunity to discuss whether to file a brief. “I want to make sure that we have good legal grounds, that we’re not doing it for political reasons,” he said.

The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of HB174 names Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Mark B. Steinagel, director of the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, as defendants.