The sponsor of the state's strict abortion law says he intends to fix a provision of the law that would allow prosecutors to bring murder charges against women who terminate their pregnancies.
"It isn't as serious as it appears," said Republican state Sen. LeRay McAllister. "It was an oversight that was not corrected. But we fully intend to do that, and we will do that in a special session or next year."McAllister said prosecuting women who have abortions on murder charges "will never be done" because Gov. Norm Bangerter has suspended enforcement of the act pending resolution of promised lengthy court challenges against it.
The new law is considered the nation's toughest. It bans abortions except in cases of rape or incest, providing the operation is performed no later than 20 weeks into the pregnancy; in cases of grave danger to the mother's medical health; or if the fetus suffers grave defects.
While the act provides criminal penalties for doctors performing illegal abortions - a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison - McAllister said it wasn't meant to include women seeking abortions.
American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, researching a planned constitutional challenge to the law, found the murder prosecution provision.
They contend that under Utah's existing criminal homicide statutes, women who have abortions - and doctors performing them - could face capital homicide charges.
"I call this the dupe statute, because on its face it pretends that women will face no criminal penalties, but it really makes them subject to the death penalty," said Janet Benshoof, an ACLU lawyer who plans to file a lawsuit challenging the law later this month.
The problem stems from a 1983 amendment to include illegal abortions within the state's criminal homicide law.
Legislative counsel Janetha Hancock, who spearheaded drafting of the 1991 abortion law, acknowledged that action never came up in debate over the bill.
McAllister said the Legislature might take up the task of closing the abortion act's flaw during a special session, which was expected anyway to address fiscal issues.