Utah's controversial abortion law probably won't be responsible for overturning the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion because laws in Pennsylvania and Guam are likely to reach the high court first.
And despite the Legislature's efforts to boost the chances of the 2-month-old law being upheld by the high court, it's still "an incredibly poorly drafted law."At least, that's what Kathryn Kolbert, a New York City-based coordinator with the Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, thought of the law, which has been described as the toughest in the nation.
The ACLU has already sued the state to prevent the law from being enforced when it takes effect later this month. The law will not be enforced until it is reviewed in federal court.
Kolbert came to Salt Lake City to monitor lawmakers' efforts to clarify the law during last week's special session. The biggest change made was to spell out that women cannot be charged with murder for having an abortion.
Although Gov. Norm Bangerter said after the special session ended Thursday that he was satisfied the more than a dozen changes made the intent of the law clearer, Kolbert isn't impressed.
"The changes are cosmetic at the very least and just silly in some respects," she told the media. Kolbert, who has argued against abortion restrictions before the Supreme Court, said the law is still too vague.
So vague that, according to Kolbert, the courts will likely rule against it on those grounds instead of considering whether it is constitutional and should overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
But while the language of Utah's law is being argued in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, laws restricting abortions (see box) in Guam and Pennsylvania are already further along in the legal process.
Guam's law, passed in the spring of 1990, is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pennsylvania's law, passed a year earlier, is before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Both cases could be before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall, Kolbert said, and both are likely to be heard. Supporters of Utah's law have predicted that it could take three years for it to reach the high court.
The lawyers hired recently by Attorney General Paul Van Dam to defend Utah's abortion law are still reviewing the status of other abortion legislation, according to Randon Wilson, president of Jones, Waldo, Holbrook & McDonough.
"If there is a case that gets there that can adequately test our statute, I don't mind letting someone else do it. It will save the state money," Wilson said. "We're going to do our homework."
So far, the state has appropriated $100,000 to defend the law and set up a legal defense fund that the public can contribute to, which has raised less than one-tenth that amount.
The cost of battling the ACLU on the abortion law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court has been estimated at about $1 million, but Kolbert said it could cost three times that.
Other abortion laws
Utah's controversial abortion law likely will not get its day at the U.S. Supreme Court because of other laws in Guam and Pennsylvania that will likely get to the high court sooner. Here's a summary of how those laws would restrict abortion:
Guam - Bans almost all abortions as well as speech about abortions. Enjoined by the U.S. District Court of Guam and pending before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. (Although Guam is a U.S. territory, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the law would affect all states.)
Pennsylvania - Requires doctors to discourage abortion, to delay the procedure for 24 hours, to notify spouses and to obtain parental consent. Enjoined in federal court and on appeal in the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.