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Are cease-and-desist letters sent to Utah abortion providers ‘political stunt’ or ‘bold stand’?

No legislative leaders signed the letters signed by coalition of Republican lawmakers

SHARE Are cease-and-desist letters sent to Utah abortion providers ‘political stunt’ or ‘bold stand’?
Hundreds protest at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on June 26, 2022, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade

Hundreds protest at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on June 26, 2022, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Cease-and-desist letters sent by a coalition of Republican lawmakers to Utah abortion providers, attorneys, a physician and others that warned “elective abortion remains a felony criminal offense” were described Friday as “political stunt” by one recipient while a pro-life organization described it as “bold” stand.

The letters were sent on Utah House of Representatives letterhead and signed by 24 GOP lawmakers. The letters also included the signatures of two people who are not members of the body, Republican House candidates Katy Hall and Stephanie Gricius.

One signer, Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, told KSL NewRadio’s Jeff Caplan on Thursday that he was withdrawing his signature.

“My understanding when I was presented the letter that it was more cautionary. It seems to me that the letter is a little harsher than I recall agreeing to sign on to,” he said.

No members of House leadership signed the letters, which were sent two months after 3rd District Court Judge Andrew Stone extended an earlier order enjoining Utah’s abortion trigger law, SB174, from enforcement while it is challenged by Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

Utah’s trigger law went into effect on June 24, the same day the Supreme Court handed down its 5-4 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that recognized women’s constitutional right to abortion.

SB174, passed by the Utah Legislature in 2020, bans most abortions. It 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.”

According to the cease-and-desist letters, “Abortion providers in Utah have been flouting these statutes after Judge Andrew Stone issued a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that prevents state officials from initiating criminal prosecutions under Utah’s trigger ban.”

They continue, “But Judge Stone’s injunction does not suspend the trigger ban itself, and it cannot shield abortion providers and their accomplices from consequences for their violations of the state’s abortion statutes if the injunction is vacated or reversed on appeal. Nor does Judge Stone’s injunction do anything to shield abortion providers from the requirements of federal law, such as the criminal prohibitions on the shipment or receipt of abortion pills,” the letter continued.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said the letters are “a form of intimidation and it really has no merit. I’m disappointed that we’re trying to create fear in the community.”

It is not yet known how the courts will rule on Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s legal challenge, she said. Current law bans abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy.

“For me, this is a way of trying to intimidate health care providers based off of somebody’s policy beliefs. And so my concern is, what else are they going to do? I’m very disappointed and them using official letterhead and including people who are not even elected officials who are running for office to intimidate providers,” Romero said.

Meanwhile, Pro-Life Utah expressed its appreciation “of the bold and clear stand of the 23 Utah legislators supporting the legality of Utah’s abortion trigger law. We strongly support our representatives’ determination to ensure that abortion providers are held accountable for the illegal abortions they have performed,” the organization said in a statement.

But Karrie Galloway, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and recipient of one of the letters, said in a statement “This is a political stunt. Full stop. Anti-abortion politicians are trying to circumvent the judicial system by harassing health care providers and instilling a culture of fear.

“PPAU is providing abortion care in full compliance with current law and always has. Our lawyers will continue to monitor the situation, but we remain open for our patients and will continue to do all we can to make sure all Utahns can get the health care they need,” she said.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, and Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, issued a statement Friday to clarify that “the press release and letter we issued was not a legal analysis from the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel but our opinion and the opinion of the legislators who signed it.”

They continued: “While we are incredibly disappointed with the judge’s ruling to stay enforcement of SB174, we respect the law and process. We will continue to do everything we can to protect the most vulnerable — the unborn — and support women and families.”

Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Sandy, a former prosecutor now an attorney in private practice, said state lawmakers create policy and laws “but we don’t have any say in the enforcement of it. So by sending a cease-and-desist order, what they’re doing is kind of broaching into that area that belongs to the attorney general.”

The actions are concerning, Stoddard said because as a legislator, “particularly as a member of a super minority, I’m very concerned with how our branch is viewed, because I know it’s not very favorable by the public. It’s unfortunate because, you know, 95% of the issues, we vote near unanimously, right?”

Asked if Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes or an assistant attorney general had helped lawmakers draft the letters, spokesman Rich Piatt said, “No.”

“The Utah Attorney General’s Office will continue to defend the constitutionality of SB174. In the meantime, the state will continue to abide by the injunction entered by Judge Stone. The state has petitioned the Utah Supreme Court for review of Judge Stone’s order,” the office said in a statement Friday.

A press release issued by Lisonbee and Birkeland along with copies of eight cease-and-desist letters said “legislators are also promising to introduce legislation that will automatically revoke the licenses of any medical professional who violates the trigger ban.”

It continues, “The legislation will also explicitly prohibit abortion providers and their accomplices from invoking Judge Stone’s preliminary injunction as a defense to prosecution or civil penalties if that injunction is vacated or reversed on appeal.”

The press release quotes Lisonbee, who said, “The Legislature will ensure that anyone who violates the laws of our state is held accountable for their criminal acts. Anyone who is  performing or assisting abortions in violation of our statutes must immediately stop or face future criminal prosecution.”