Utah's controversial abortion law was amended by the Senate Thursday during the second day of the Legislature's special session.
After debating for more than two hours, senators voted 22-6 to make technical changes in the law passed in January. Those changes include removing all criminal penalties against a woman who procures an abortion and protecting the confidentiality of victims of rape and incest who seek an abortion.Meantime, the House refused to repeal the law in a 22-50 vote. The issue saw little debate except for repeated pleas by Rep. Haynes Fuller, D-Eden, that the law will cost Utah money and won't stop any abortions.
The two-page list of amendments was requested by Gov. Norm Bangerter to strengthen the law's chances of surviving a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has already resulted in the law being enjoined.
The governor put the issue on the special session agenda in response to ACLU charges that a woman who has an abortion in Utah could be subject to the death penalty, even though he disagrees that that's the case.
The other amendments are technical rather than substantive changes that will help make the intent of the law clearer to the courts, according to the governor's chief of staff, Bud Scruggs.
"They're rhetorical concessions, not legal concessions," Scruggs said.
According to amendments approved by the Senate on Wednesday:
- A woman would be able to obtain an abortion in cases of incest regardless of her age at the time of the incest. The sponsor of the bill containing the amendments had wanted to restrict those abortions to women under age 18, saying incestuous relationships after that age are most likely with mutual consent.
"The rights of minors are greater than the rights of unborn children," said Sen. LeRay McAllister, R-Orem, the sponsor. "But I do not believe the rights of consenting adults are greater than unborn children."
But Sen. Millie Peterson, D-West Valley, argued that just because a person turns 18 doesn't mean an ongoing incestuous relationship "all of a sudden stops."
- The definition of incest was expanded to include brothers, uncles, cousins and other
male relatives of the victim. The existing law applies only to incest committed by fathers, stepfathers and guardians.
- The privacy rights of abortion and incest victims were expanded to prohibit the policefrom revealing their identities and to allow judges to close court proceedings and trial transcripts.
- Senators also changed the wording of the law concerning those who "procure" or "assist" someone in obtaining an abortion. The new wording states that only those who actually perform the abortions are subject to the criminal penalties.
An attempt to pressure Attorney General Paul Van Dam into hiring a new law firm to defend the abortion law was rejected earlier Thursday. A resolution citing "the appearance of a conflict of interest" was defeated in the Senate on a 9-19 vote.
At issue is whether the attorney general should have hired the firm of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough to defend the bill against a legal challenge from the ACLU.
One of the partners in the law firm, Michael Patrick O'Brien, is volunteering with the ACLU of Utah in the battle against two of the state's school districts over graduation prayer. O'Brien also is a member of the ACLU's board of directors.
More than 300 protesters gathered in the Capitol Rotunda for nearly 40 minutes at noon Wednesday to demand repeal of the law.
Some 50 supporters of the law stood quietly above the pro-choice rally. A few held signs thanking lawmakers for passing the abortion law.