Utah’s Republican-controlled Legislature is not waiting for the end result of the lawsuit currently tying up Utah’s trigger law that bans almost all abortions in Utah.

Instead, Utah lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a pair of bills to clamp down, clarify and in some areas of code further restrict Utah’s abortion laws.

Both HB467, a bill that would among other measures seek to ban abortion clinics in Utah, and HB297, a bill to expand services for rape victims while also reinforcing an existing requirement that medical providers first verify a rape was in some way reported to law enforcement, won approval from the House Judiciary Committee despite protests from Democrats.

Both bills would also completely strip out Utah’s rape and incest exemption after 18 weeks of pregnancy.

While Utah’s trigger law that would ban almost all abortions (with exemptions) is on hold as it’s challenged in courtUtah’s current law bans abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest or when the fetus has a brain defect or abnormality.

Judge places new ban on Utah's abortion law until Planned Parenthood lawsuit is settled
Audience members express their approval of comments in the House Judiciary committee as they hear HB0467 and HB297 at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

After an overflowing public hearing packed with supporters and detractors, the House committee voted to endorse both bills. They now go to the House floor for consideration.

Some anti-abortion advocates urged lawmakers to support the bill, while others scolded Utah lawmakers for not going far enough. From the other side, detractors included medical professionals who urged legislators not to further limit abortion options and to stay out of deeply personal and complex decisions that they argued should be left between women and their doctors.

HB467: Bill to ban abortion clinics

The bill sponsored by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, includes several measures. It would, among other provisions:

  • End licensing of abortion clinics after May 2 and ban abortion clinics from operating after Jan 1, 2024.
  • Require abortions to be performed in hospitals with limited exceptions.
  • Create a “presumption” that a pregnant girl under the age of 12 would be able to seek an abortion under the rape and incest exemption.
  • Clarify that a medical provider’s “intentional” violation of Utah’s abortion law is punishable as a criminal act.
  • Provide that inducing or performing an abortion contrary to Utah law is unprofessional conduct for a physician, osteopathic physician, physician assistant, advanced practice registered nurse, certified nurse midwife and midwife.
  • If the fetus is determined to have a fetal abnormality that is “incompatible with life,” the abortion would be required to be performed “by means of labor rather than in utero, unless the induction of labor poses an unacceptably higher risk to the mother than other methods.”
  • Prohibits out-of-state providers from prescribing drugs for the purpose of an abortion.
Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, speaks on HB297 in the House Judiciary Committee at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“In Utah, we deeply value human life in all stages and in all circumstances. It’s the state’s responsibility to protect the most vulnerable (including) the unborn,” Lisonbee told the House committee. “At the same time, we have worked closely with area hospitals and doctors to ensure that our statute strikes the very best balance of protecting innocent life and protecting women.”

Lisonbee said she also expects the court case to be resolved by January of next year, when the ban on clinics would take effect, which she argued would dramatically reduce clinic abortions anyway.

Medical providers including Misha Pangasa, an OB-GYN who provides abortion care in both hospitals and clinics, spoke against the bill, arguing it would restrict access and increase costs for women by requiring abortions in hospitals and cutting off clinic access.

“This bill will remove the option for clinic-based care and result in more pain and suffering for people who are already going through some of the most difficult times of their lives,” Pangasa said.

Gabby Saunders, lobbyist for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said “Doctors and hospitals are not used to performing abortions, especially in the ER.” She said one doctor last year called an abortion doctor seeking help “because a woman had come in who had a placenta rupture.”

“He needed to perform an abortion to save her life. Instead of doing that, he was so confused and scared by the laws and of losing his license that he called this abortion doctor, de-scrubbed, and continued to let this patient bleed out on the table,” Saunders said.

“No,” she continued. “It is not going to be a safer place.”

Jasmin Charles speaks against HB0467 in the House Judiciary committee at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Saunders also argued clinics “exist because it is an option that is more affordable for many women that will be seeking this exemption.” She said a woman who may lose her life or “watch her child suffer an incredibly painful death will be prevented that option because they know they’re going to have to spend somewhere between $5,000 to $20,000 to do that.”

Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said she appreciates Lisonbee’s bill for providing “greater clarification for doctors” and using “more medically accurate language in the exceptions than was originally in code.”

“However,” Lowe said, “rather than allowing the court process to play out — and by the way, the idea that litigation would be resolved by January is extremely unlikely — HB467 attempts to constructively circumvent the judicial process.”

It would effectively “convert Utah hospitals from Cache County to Washington County into abortion clinics,” Lowe said.

Lisonbee argued her bill would not “pigeon hole anybody into an in-patient hospital setting.” She said “There are lots of doctors who currently handle abortions in a hospital setting and an emergency setting that will continue to do so.”

“They have worked with us very closely to ensure that the language in this bill allows them to safely take care of the women under their care,” Lisonbee said.

Lisonbee also said she understands “people who make a huge profit in the abortion clinic setting have the desire to keep their profit, their market share. But in Utah, we have already passed our trigger law. When the courts decide and uphold that, there will be no elective abortions anymore. So there will be very few abortions happening.”

The committee voted 9-2, with two Democrats voting against it, to endorse the bill and forward it to the full House.

HB297: Rape victim services

Immediately after Lisonbee’s bill won approval, the House committee also considered a bill sponsored by Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan.

With HB297, Birkeland wants to expand services for rape victims while also reinforcing an existing requirement that medical providers, before performing an abortion, first verify the rape was in some way reported to law enforcement.

Birkeland started her presentation of the bill by making it clear “this bill does not create a requirement that women go to police before receiving medical care or abortions. That bill was passed long before I became a lawmaker. So that debate already happened.”

Birkeland’s bill would:

  • Specify that when a rape victim calls a sexual assault hotline, he or she would be provided with information on how to access free emergency contraception as well as how to report the rape to law enforcement.
  • Require law enforcement officers to undergo at least one hour of training a year on investigating sexual assault and responding to sexual trauma.
  • Require the State Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to track and report data concerning sexual assault offenses.
  • Allow victims of sexual assault who become pregnant to receive health care during the pregnancy and up to one year after the child is born.

An earlier version of her bill would have required the woman receiving the abortion to give the physician “a copy of the case report by the applicable law enforcement agency” or “sign a certification that the woman reported to law enforcement the incident.”

However, in the committee hearing Birkeland amended the bill to require the physician performing the abortion to simply “maintain an accurate record as to the manner in which the physician conducted the verification.”

“It can be something as simple as a form where they strike a box saying the woman told me she has a case number, (or) the woman gave me an affidavit, (or) the victim told me she just called, and I’m taking that as her word, right, word of mouth,” Birkeland said. “It could be all kinds of things.”

A Utah lawmaker and her sister at odds: Should rape victims need to contact police before getting an abortion?

Birkeland’s younger sister, Samantha Hansen, has publicly opposed Birkeland’s bill while sharing her own story as a rape survivor. Hansen told the Deseret News she didn’t attend Wednesday’s hearing because she recently contracted COVID-19, but issued a written statement saying she was “pleased” Birkeland’s bill was amended “and a case number or signed affidavit is no longer needed to access abortion.”

“As someone who has lived the awful reality of rape, and pregnancy as a result of rape, I find myself most in favor of SB88,” Hansen said, pointing to a bill being sponsored by Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, that would remove Utah’s requirement that a physician verify a report has been made to law enforcement before performing an abortion. That bill has yet to receive a public hearing.

Hansen, however, said has “always and will continue to support the portion” of Birkeland’s bill that would provide more resources to rape victims, “and I most certainly support her endeavors to create better systems within law enforcement.”

Birkeland argued her bill is focused more than anything on holding rapists accountable while “empowering women who’ve had some of the most important and sacred powers already taken from them.”

Nicholeen Peck listens to testimony in the House Judiciary committee on HB0467 and HB297 at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Nicholeen Peck, president of the anti-abortion Worldwide Organization for Women, spoke in favor of Birkeland’s bill. She told lawmakers her husband was adopted as a child, and when they were able to find his birth mother in 2019, she “explained the unfortunate circumstance that happened to her.”

“She said, ‘I was going to get an abortion. I don’t know why I didn’t. But now I’m really glad I didn’t,’” Peck said. “And You know what? I am too. Eternally glad that she didn’t. So I appreciate (Birkeland’s bill) for future families like mine.”

David Turok, an OB-GYN, spoke against Birkeland’s bill, saying he’s “perplexed” by Utah’s reporting requirement that her bill is structured around.

“If we know that the vast majority of (rape victims) already do not report, and the main goal is to get people to better care, then I cannot understand why you wouldn’t let the people who have thousands of hours of training ... be the venue and the vehicle for reporting rather than already overburdened and challenged law enforcement officers,” Turok said.

Jasmin Charles, a physician associate, said in the past she worked primarily with vulnerable populations and helping women out of intimate partner violence.

“I love that we are looking at victim advocacy,” she said, but the reporting requirement creates a barrier for victims that “we can hardly even begin to understand.”

Audience members express their disapproval of comments in the House Judiciary committee as they hear HB0467 and HB297 at the Capitol on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News