Utah needs to alter its laws and make marital rape a criminal offense. Despite broad support for such a move, the 1991 Legislature might not enact the change. Yet there seems to be no justification for delay.

State law presently defines rape as occurring when "the actor has sexual intercourse with another person, not the actor's spouse, without the victim's consent." This wording eliminates marital rape from prosecution, even in the most heinous circumstances.But there have been a number of horror stories of rape by abusive husbands as well as assault and rape by husbands who are separated from their wives or where a divorce is in process. In one case, the divorce had been granted, but the papers not signed when the woman was kidnapped, beaten and sexually assaulted. Because the divorce technically was not final, a rape charge could not be prosecuted.

Three bills currently are before the Legislature to deal with this problem. Two of the proposals, HB36, sponsored by Rep. Janet Rose, D-Salt Lake, and HB256 by Rep. Nancy S. Lyon, R-Bountiful, simply would remove language like "not the actor's spouse" from the law, opening rape under any circumstances to possible prosecution. A task force on Gender and Justice last year made the same recommendation.

The other measure, HB33, sponsored by Rep. R. Mont Evans, R-Salt Lake, would establish a task force to study the issue and make recommendations for a new law covering spousal rape.

Evans says he intended to introduce a different bill, making changes in the law. But he says complaints by women's advocacy groups about their lack of input, plus questions by prosecutors, made a task force study seem like a better alternative.

Yet waiting another year with the current, ineffective law on the books would leave abused wives, separated women, or those in the process of divorce, without legal protection against brutal rape by a disgruntled husband.

It may be that simply eliminating some language in the present law would not be adequate. But engaging in lengthy studies hardly seems necessary, especially since 44 other states already have made marital rape a crime. Why not borrow from their experience instead of reinventing the wheel?

Lawmakers should move quickly to provide protection against sexual abuse for all Utah women, no matter who the abuser might be.