A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Utah's new abortion law evoked an offer from the Utah solicitor general late Friday to delay enforcement of the law until the suit has been heard by a federal judge.
"I don't believe the state has any difficulty agreeing to a stay of that law well beyond the effective date of April 28," Utah Solicitor General Jan Graham told U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene in a hearing late Friday.The American Civil Liberties Union filed a 300-page class action suit challenging the law Friday morning in U.S. District Court. The suit seeks immediate hearings on the law and a restraining order prohibiting its enforcement.
The suit sent Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam scrambling for a law firm to represent the state in the case. Van Dam has said all along he wanted outside legal counsel to handle the long-promised ACLU suit, but he was unprepared for immediate hearings on the restraining order.
"Money is not the problem," he said. "We're going through a list of people . . . law firms are reticent to take a case of this magnitude because they have to clear out so much other work." The Legislature has appropriated $100,000 toward the law's defense.
In a hasty hearing late Friday, Graham promised U.S. District Judge Thomas Greene that the state would hire a law firm by the end of the day. "That might mean midnight," she said, "but I believe we will have a law firm."
The firm has until Monday afternoon to get up to speed on the case. Greene scheduled a hearing for 1:30 p.m. that day to review the ACLU's request for a restraining order on the new law and three existing laws. (See box on B1.)
Utah's new abortion law prohibits all abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, threat to the health of the mother or grave fetal deformity.
Although Graham agreed to halt the enforcement of that law, she would not agree to halt enforcement of three existing laws related to the treatment of pregnant women and their fetuses.
While the state scrambled to respond to the suit, an array of strange bedfellows held an ACLU-sponsored press conference Friday morning to discuss it.
The language of Utah's law - which says anyone who procures or supplies the means for an abortion not allowed for in the law has committed a third degree felony - has united science and religion.
Medical doctors and religious leaders said the law makes them felons for even counseling with a woman over whether to seek an abortion.
The United Church of Christ believes abortions should only be sought after prayer and counsel with religious leaders, said the Rev. Marie Soward Green
"As I read this law, I may be prevented from giving a woman that kind of counsel," she said during the press conference. To do so "would make me a felon."
The Rev. David Butler of the United Methodist Church accused Utah of "continuing to rape women by legislation." He attacked the new law on several fronts. Under Utah law, he must choose between removal from his ministry for not providing parishioners with the breadth of counsel they need or prosecution by the state for commission of a felony.
Social workers and genetic counselors also spoke against the law for the same reasons.
The complaint, filed under the pseudonym of "Jane Liberty," claims the law's language is overly broad, violates free speech and religion provisions and denies Utahns their right to know what constitutes a crime under the statute.
The suit was filed on behalf of Jane Liberty, an alias for a pregnant northern Utah woman. According to the suit, Liberty is a divorced mother raising two small children and going to school.
The suit said Liberty's doctor told her she has a 50 percent chance of toxemia with this pregnancy and she wants an abortion.
The ACLU included complaints about three current laws in their suit because medical personnel are fearful about treating pregnant woman in the wake of the new law, said ACLU lawyer Cathy Alvisa. The new law leaves doctors fearful of being deemed criminals if they do not exactly obey laws relating to pregnant women.
The language of the three laws has been "loosely interpreted" by Utah doctors in the past, she said.
3 laws under fire
The ACLU's lawsuit seeks to stop enforcement of three existing Utah laws:
- Spousal notification: Requires women seeking abortions to notify their spouses of their intent. The ACLU has long criticized this law.
- Fetal experimentation ban: Prohibits any experimental treatment that might affect a fetus, including treatment intended to benefit the fetus and result in a healthy birth.
- Choice of method provision in post-viability abortion law: Requires that abortions performed on women more than six months pregnant must be performed in a manner that results in the highest probability of the fetus' survival. In Utah, such abortions can only be performed to save the life of the mother.