A compromise bill that severely limits abortions in Utah emerged intact from a stormy three-hour public hearing that included a room change, chants from both opponents and proponents and noticeably short tempers.
By a 4-1 vote, members of the Senate Health Standing Committee approved Substitute SB23, sponsored by Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Orem, which takes a "two-tiered" approach to the abortion issue. The first "tier" would prohibit abortions with a few specific exceptions. Abortion would be allowed to save a woman's life, if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest that was reported to law enforcement, to prevent life-threatening damage to the pregnant woman's physical health or if the child would be born with "grave and irremediable physical or mental defects incompatible with sustained survival."The second tier is intended to take effect if the first doesn't survive a court challenge. The abortion exceptions are basically the same, but some of the languagewould be broadened. "Physical" health would change to "medical health," which would seem to include mental health, McAllister said. And abortion could be sought "to prevent the birth of a child that would be born with grave deformities."
Gov. Norman H. Bangerter indicated he will sign the bill if it passes. The measure is a compromise worked out between legislative leadership and the governor's office after Bangerter said he would veto the bill in the form recommended by an abortion task force.
The hearing before both the Senate and House health committees was moved into the House chambers after complaints that holding it in a committee room too small to accommodate half the crowd was "a farce." The crowd outside the original room overflowed the anteroom and stretched back to the stairs. People outside the hearing room chanted their frustration with cries of "Pro-choice, no voice," and "We're got a right to hear."
Sen. Karen Shepherd, D-Salt Lake, said it's not a question of whether or not there will be abortions, but whether there will be safe abortions. In her own district, she said, a teenage girl was given an abortion by friends and almost died.
"I am saying to you, the daughters of Utah will die. Supporters (of the bill) will say some will die but more will live. But I wonder: Will they become victims of their own births?"
Shepherd, who cast the only dissenting vote, also said the bill should carry a $6 million fiscal note, including the cost to public education, public assistance, Medicaid and medical costs and the handicapped infants and toddlers program.
Julie Frost, an abortion opponent, described how, as a 20-year-old, she was "pregnant and terrified." Her mother forced her to have an abortion, she said, so they drove 100 miles away for the procedure. She learned "my baby was fully developed and felt excruciating pain. . . . It was a living, feeling human being."
Susanne Millsaps, National Abortion Rights Action League, said there will be an effort to boycott Utah's ski industry and that the International Olympic Committee would hear about it and probably would not want to bring the games to a place where women were discriminated against.
"My mother wanted to abort me," said Bonnie Julian. "I was born of incest. Well, my rights matter, too. And my rights are no different as a middle-aged woman than they were as a fetus. I'm the same person."
Members of the Planned Parenthood of Utah honorary board of directors wrote a letter to lawmakers expressing "grave concern." This legislation, it said, "would remove freedom of personal choice. In effect, the Legislature would assert itself in the decisionmaking process of each individual."
The issue even divided physicians, who will have to participate in the decisionmaking process if the bill becomes law. Dr. Charles Stewart said that life clearly begins at inception and must be protected. The decision, he said, should not be one of "convenience."
Dr. Kenneth Ward said he'd like to see more limits on abortion, but the decision should belong to a woman and her physician. "There are many medical conditions that need to be discussed. There are many aspects of early pregnancy that are not understood by the public, lay persons and perhaps by legislators."
The Senate will now vote on the bill. If it passes there, it will move into the House for a vote. Lawmakers hope to have the controversial issue decided and on the governor's desk by the end of the week.