The Utah Legislature passed America's toughest anti-abortion law Friday and it should be signed into law by Gov. Norm Bangerter before the day is out.
When the Utah House finished with SB23 Thursday afternoon, it wasn't nearly as tough as anti-abortion advocates had hoped for.A House amendment sponsored by Rep. Afton Bradshaw, R-Salt Lake, removed some of the bill's most restrictive language. The Senate concurred with those changes Friday morning. The vote was 19-10 along party lines.
"This is personally the most wrenching issue I have ever faced," Bradshaw said, arguing the harsh and "clearly unconstitutional" restrictions of the original bill would have thrust Utah into an unwelcome national debate over abortion rights.
But Rep. Evan Olsen, R-Young Ward, the House sponsor of the bill, was incensed by the amendment, saying, "If you want to kill the bill this is the way to do it."
It was women lawmakers of both parties who made the most impassioned pleas to remove two entire sections of the bill. Of the nine women in the House, only two voted against the amendment, which passed 42-31.
Rosa Goodnight, director Right to Life of Utah, said her group will continue to support the bill with the amendment. "Something is better than nothing. We don't want to repeat last year. It's a victory. The ultimate goal here is to get something through that will get to the Supreme Court and start saving babies in Utah."
Lawmakers came into the 1991 session with a restrictive abortion bill proposed by a task force that conducted nine public hearings on the matter. It would have banned abortions in all cases except rape, incest, life of the mother and terminal birth defects.
Bangerter threatened to veto the measure, saying it went beyond constitutional bounds.
A compromise bill was drafted in which additional language, called a "second tier," was added to soften the original wording and allow considerably more flexibility in determining when abortions would be allowed. Bangerter agreed to sign the compromise bill.
Bradshaw's amendment then removed the original "first tier" language, leaving only the softer compromise language in the bill. The new formula would permit abortion to prevent grave damage to the pregnant woman's health - including her mental health - or to prevent birth of a child with grave defects. House members also amended the bill to allow doctors more flexibility in performing abortions under emergency conditions and to limit abortions in cases of rape and incest to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The amended bill passed by a 53-20 margin.
Under the provisions of the amended bill, abortions would be prohibited except under the following conditions:
- If the pregnant woman's physician believes there is grave danger to the woman's life.
- In cases of rape or incest that are reported to police and if the abortion is performed within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
- To prevent grave damage to a pregnant woman's health.
- If the child would be born with grave defects.
While women receiving illegal abortions would not be subject to criminal penalties, those who perform unauthorized abortions could be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
The House action came after two hours of emotional and often divisive debate in which few lawmakers entirely agreed. Many argued the amended bill went too far into constitutionally uncharted waters, while others countered vehemently the amended bill does not do enough to protect unborn children. Olsen, the bill's sponsor, voted against the amended version for that reason.
All others to vote against the bill were Democrats, who urged fellow lawmakers not to "overlook the desperation of those seeking abortions."
"Brigham Young would turn over in his grave if he knew that government was becoming involved in this very personal matter," said Rep. Haynes Fuller, D-Eden.
He also noted that Mexico and the United States have roughly the same number of abortions a year. But in Mexico, where abortions are illegal, 140,000 women died from the 1.5 million abortions performed. Only six women died of abortions in the United States during that same period.
"This bill stops only safe abortions," he said.
Even Republicans, who later voted for the bill, joined the call for a cautious approach to limiting abortions. Rep. Jerrold Jensen, R-Salt Lake, said Utahns must realize the "reality we face in this society and country" that the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes the right to abortions, that the courts are still trying to balance the rights of the mother with the rights of the fetus, and that at some point the rights of the mother terminates in favor of the fetus.
"There's no question the first tier (was) unconstitutional," said Jensen, an attorney. "And the second tier also faces a chance of being declared unconstitutional, even though it is a more reasonable approach."
Pro-choice advocates have vowed to legally challenge any Utah law further restricting abortions.