By next Thursday, Utah lawmakers and Gov. Norm Bangerter will likely settle the public debate over abortion.
Then it will be up to the federal courts - ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court - to rule on the constitutionality of Utah's new, tougher abortion law.Bangerter said Friday afternoon that while he hasn't yet examined a proposed abortion compromise bill, "I think it might work."
Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have orchestrated a quick and, many hope, less-painful debate aimed at getting an abortion bill on Bangerter's desk by Thursday. The process begins Monday with an 8 a.m., three-hour public hearing of the bill before a joint meeting of the Senate and House health committees in room 403 of the Capitol.
As reported in Friday's Deseret News, a compromise has been reached that legislative leaders and the governor's office hope will fly through the House and Senate. The Senate, which normally votes twice on bills over a two-day period, will vote only once on the abortion bill on Tuesday. The House will debate and pass the bill on Wednesday, leaders predict.
Last Monday in his State-of-the-State address, Bangerter warned he'll veto any abortion bill he believes doesn't have a reasonable chance before the U.S. Supreme Court. He considered the Abortion Task Force's bill to be too strict, and likely for his veto.
The task force bill would outlaw abortions except in the cases of rape, if reported within five days of the attack; or incest, if reported prior to the abortion; or where the life of the mother is endangered; or in cases where the unborn child is so deformed it couldn't survive birth.
Task force bill sponsors Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Provo, and Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, agreed to change the bill and worked with Bangerter aides on various drafts over several days.
Sources say the compromise bill, not yet public, has a two-tier system. The idea is that the federal courts - ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court - would rule on the constitutionality of the first tier. If that section of the law were struck down, the second tier would take effect. A whole new challenge would have to be mounted questioning the second tier's constitutionality, officials said.
The first tier is the toughest. The sponsors agreed to remove the five-day rape reporting requirement. If a pregnant woman claims the rape exception, she must report the rape to police any time before the abortion. The words "life threatening" are added. A woman could get an abortion if a continued pregnancy endangered her life or would cause a life-threatening health problem.
The second-tier is more liberal. Gone again is any time limit to reporting a rape. Added is the word "health" of the woman. Thus, an abortion could be conducted if the woman's life or health were endangered.
"Life threatening" illness is not defined in the first tier, nor is "health" of the mother defined in the second tier. What those terms mean will be left up to the discretion of the woman's attending physician, officials said.
"Whatever we pass will, I imagine, be enjoined (ruled not enforceable) by the first federal court that hears it. Then the long legal appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will begin," said one state official who worked on the compromise.
Bangerter said he will seek legal opinions from various sources before he ultimately decides whether he'll sign or veto the abortion bill - now expected by Republican and Democratic leaders to easily pass the House and Senate.
He has already discussed the abortion matter with BYU law professor Richard Wilkins, a recognized expert on abortion and the U.S. Supreme Court. Bangerter will ask Attorney General Paul Van Dam for an official opinion also. Bangerter said Wilkins suggests the next logical step in restricting abortion is to have an eight-week period where abortion on demand is allowed.
"I understand his legal reasons for that. But I personally can't accept abortion on demand," said the governor. Thus, in the compromise bill there is no time frame of abortion on demand. "That gives a woman a time frame of cart blanche action. I just don't agree with that," Bangerter said.