Utah lawmakers advance ban on abortion clinics amid protests
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Lawmakers advanced a measure to limit where people can get abortions in Utah, banning abortion clinics and effectively requiring them to be provided only in hospitals. After passing the state Senate on a party line vote Thursday, it will return to the state House of Representatives to vote on minor changes and then go to the desk of Gov. Spencer Cox, an anti-abortion Republican who expressed support last month.
“When we passed the trigger ban a few years ago, I didn’t expect we’d be here so quickly,” said Republican Sen. Dan McCay.
The measure is one of several that members of Utah’s Republican-supermajority state House have passed this year, while abortion restrictions approved in past years have been put on hold by a state court injunction. It has faced fierce opposition from business, civil liberties and abortion rights groups, including the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, which operates three of the four abortion clinics in the state.
“It has one goal,” Karrie Galloway, the group’s president and CEO, said in a statement after the measure passed. “Put abortion out of reach for as many Utahns as possible, regardless of what their faith, family and trusted doctors decide is best for their safety and health.”
Republican lawmakers’ push to close abortion clinics comes as red states across the country work to implement restrictions less than a year after overturns of Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to abortion for nearly 50 years. After the court gave states the power to regulate abortion, many tried to implement “trigger laws,” designed to go into effect after a Supreme Court order, while others took steps to reinstate pre-Roe bans on the books.
In Utah, the ruling triggered two previously passed laws — one ban in 2019 on abortion after 18 weeks and one ban in 2020 on abortions regardless of trimester, with several exceptions, including cases of risk to maternal health as well as rape or incest reported to the police. State Planned Parenthood affiliate sued over the ban in 2020 and in July a state court delayed implement it until legal challenges could be resolved. The 18-week ban has since been de facto law.
The clinic-centered push in Utah is unique among states with trigger laws, where many abortion clinics closed after last year’s Supreme Court decision. Clinics were closed in states such as West Virginia and Mississippi in the aftermath, yet they remain open in Utah while the courts deliberate. The measure mirrors a series of proposals passed in red states in the decade before Roe was overturned, when anti-abortion lawmakers passed measuresregulates clinics, including the size of procedure rooms and distances from hospitals.
In Utah, the proposal by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee demand that all abortions – via medication or surgery – be provided in hospitals by not allowing new clinics to be licensed after May 2 and not allowing anyone to operate when their licenses expire. That would affect the operations of the four clinics that perform abortions in Utah — three run by Planned Parenthood and the other by the Wasatch Women’s Center, an independent clinic in Salt Lake City. The measure would also clarify the definition of abortion to address legal liability concerns providers have voiced about the way exemptions are worded in state law — a provision Republicans call a compromise.
Because the 2020 ban would effectively put abortion clinics out of business, abortion opponents argue that removing them from state statute makes sense, said Mary Taylor, president of Pro-Life Utah. She said the exceptional circumstances in which abortion would still be legal – rape, incest and the mother’s health – are better suited to hospital treatment.
“We have legal provisions to grant permission to an abortion clinic when abortion is not legal. There is a discrepancy there,” Taylor said. “This merely clarifies the statute.”
McCay, the measure’s Senate sponsor, said limiting abortions to emergencies or extraordinary circumstances and requiring them to be provided in hospitals would protect both “the innocent and the health of the mother.”
In Utah last year, clinics performed the most abortions. Of the total of 2,818 administered, 61% were on medication such as mifepristone rather than via surgery. Abortion access advocates argued that abortions were no different from other types of specialty care that have increasingly moved to clinics where providers are more accustomed to recurring patient problems and confronting complications that may arise.
Jasmin Charles, a physician assistant in Salt Lake City, said closed clinics would limit access for anyone seeking an abortion, but would make things especially difficult for people who may not have spare cash or easy access to transportation. She expected difficult conversations ahead with her patients, including those struggling with substance abuse, as she works to counsel them on how to access a rapidly dwindling number of reproductive health services.
“I can tell my patients that the hospitals are OK,” Charles said. “But I know I’m working with individuals who can’t access care through the hospital when every time they walk through the hospital door — including for an abortion — they think, ‘It’s going to cost me $10,000 to $20,000.'”
This story has been updated to correct that the measure must return to the Utah House of Representatives to vote on minor changes before going to Gov. Spencer Cox for approval, not directly to the governor.