An abortion ban headed for debate on the House floor has the backing of GOP leaders in the Senate, who said Wednesday money should be set aside to fight the legal battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
HB235, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, would ban abortions except in cases of rape, incest or medical necessity for the mother. It is intended to pose a challenge to Roe v. Wade, in which the court in 1973 recognized a woman's right to have an abortion.
"We definitely will have to fund the defense of the bill because, on its face, it's unconstitutional," Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said. "But there are a lot of issues that are ripe for a decision by the Supreme Court."
Those issues, Valentine said, include whether states have the ability to impose restrictions on abortion or if it is still a national issue. The courts also may be ready to consider, he said, whether there can be a ban with exceptions as detailed in HB235.
"It goes to the straightforward issue of state's rights to be able to define health issues and safety issues for its own citizens," Valentine said, as well as whether abortion can be permitted only if the health of the mother is in jeopardy or in cases of rape or incest.
HB235 was originally drafted as a "trigger bill," which would have enacted a state ban on abortion only if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, introduced the more aggressive substitute Tuesday, which was opposed by only two members of the House Health and Human Services Committee.
At that hearing, Rep. David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, accused lawmakers of again failing to address the underlying problems behind unwanted pregnancies, such as access to contraceptive measures and responsible sex education in the schools. It is "silly," Litvack said, to waste time and money on such a clear message bill.
"It's irresponsible to spend tax dollars in a blatantly unconstitutional effort," he said.
The issue has not come up yet in the Senate GOP caucus, but Valentine and other members of Senate leadership said Wednesday that they were ready to back the bill assuming the money is there to defend it.
"I will not support it if we're just going to throw it out there and hope the litigation won't happen," Valentine said, "because the litigation will happen."
The Senate president said the allocation for the bill's defense would require a one-time expenditure rather than be an ongoing expense to taxpayers. HB235 also creates a "litigation trust account," which would allow private citizens to help fund the defense.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff estimates it would cost at least $1 million for his office to defend the bill and a minimum of $3 million if outside legal counsel is hired to take the case. Valentine has requested detailed information on the costs from Shurtleff.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said cost shouldn't be a consideration. "I don't want the word to be out that the Legislature would cave on these issues because of the cost," he said.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who is pro-life, has yet to weigh in on HB235 in its substituted form.
"This is one we will be waiting to see in its final form," the governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said. "We will see what happens. ... It still has a ways to go."
House leaders were not so bold Wednesday as to predict the bill's passage in that chamber. Majority Leader David Clark, R-Santa Clara, told the Associated Press that Republicans there hadn't discussed it and may not want to take on Roe v. Wade with protracted litigation.
But Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said having sponsored two bills to restrict abortions in recent years, he senses the Senate is "generally favorable" to defending the rights of the unborn.