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Commentary Law and Policy

Mandatory Ultrasounds. Abortion Bans. Utah, Are You OK?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Utah anti-choice lawmakers are passing a bevy of abortion restrictions over the objections of voters. Why?

Hey, Utah. It’s Jess. Do you have a minute?

I’m hoping we can chat because, well, I’m a little concerned. OK, I’m a lot concerned. What exactly is happening over there? No, I’m not talking about your women’s soccer team—though I have a few questions there too. I’m talking about the attacks on abortion rights and access that have reached a fevered pitch in the closing days of your legislative session.

Is it the upcoming election? The fact that Justice Brett Kavanaugh is now on the U.S. Supreme Court? For real—what gives?

I suspect the reason your conservative lawmakers are as focused on rolling back abortion rights as my dog is on that squirrel living in the garage next door has something to do with the ideological shift in the federal courts. One in four appellate court judges is a Trump appointee who has pledged to overturn Roe v. Wade. If I were a conservative lawmaker with a particularly regressive anti-abortion itch to scratch, I know I’d be looking at all these young, eager, unfit judges with lifetime appointments and think, “Carpe diem, Jess! Let’s go pass some abortion restrictions!”

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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What else would explain why your state’s anti-choice lawmakers have pushed a bill that mandates doctors show patients an ultrasound before an abortion? Like every other forced ultrasound law, HB 364 serves no legitimate medical purpose and offers no medical benefits. The purpose of these mandatory ultrasound laws is to shame patients and pressure them into continuing their pregnancies, while creating logistical and financial barriers to care. These requirements are so offensive that even some Republican lawmakers in the state walked out of the vote in protest.

I don’t need to tell you this, Utah. You were there!

HB 364 is essentially the same terrible ultrasound law as a Kentucky restriction the Supreme Court allowed to take effect late last year. And it’s essentially the same awful ultrasound law that is working its way through statehouses in Missouri, Iowa, and Maryland.

That’s a lot of copycat bills running around so soon after the Roberts Court blessed Kentucky’s mandatory ultrasound law. And with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals now even more conservative, thanks to appointments like Judge Allison Eid, maybe you can you can see why I suspect that Utah lawmakers are legislating with their eyes to the courts rather than constituent need. After all, new polling suggests a majority of Utahns, like a majority of people in the United States, support abortion rights. And they don’t just support abortion rights—they also don’t want Utah lawmakers restricting access any further.

So I have to ask you again, Utah. What gives?

Because it’s not just your mandatory ultrasound law I’m talking about. What on earth is going on with this fetal burial bill? SB 67 mandates burial or cremation of fetal remains following an abortion. This law is modeled after an Indiana measure the Supreme Court recently allowed to take effect and, like other fetal burial requirements, is really about establishing a backdoor for fetal “personhood.” And once fetal personhood is established, recriminalizing abortion and many kinds of contraception is possible.

But seriously. What is going on with SB 67? Do your lawmakers even know?

OK, Utah. You know I have to ask you about this abortion ban. What are your lawmakers thinking passing SB 174?  The bill bans all abortions, with a narrow exemption that allows for an abortion to avert the death of the pregnant person or the “serious risk of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” of the pregnant person. The bill has an exception that allows for an abortion in cases where two doctors practicing in maternal fetal medicine agree, in writing in the patient’s medical record, that the fetus “has a defect that is uniformly diagnosable and uniformly lethal” or has a “severe brain abnormality that is uniformly diagnosable.”

The rape and incest exception in SB 174 also requires two doctors who practice maternal fetal medicine verify in writing, in the patient’s medical record, that the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. If it was, and if those two specialists agree in writing, then before the patient can have an abortion, the doctor who performs it— who may or may not be the maternal fetal health practitioner who certified the rape in the medical records—must independently verify that that the rape or act of incest has been reported to law enforcement.

The penalty for violating the measure—including for patients who self-manage their own abortion—would be second-degree felony, punishable with a prison sentence of up to 15 years and a fine up to $10,000.

SB 174 has a trigger clause and would only go into effect should the Supreme Court overturn Roe. Yay, I guess?

Seriously Utah, SB 174 is way out of character for you, which is why I wanted this check in. SB 174 is dangerous. It’s mean and Utah, you and I may not agree on everything, but you are not a mean-spirited state. I don’t understand how a state could expand Medicaid (albeit with that weird work requirement) in part to help pregnant Utahns in one breath and turn around and threaten vulnerable pregnant Utahns with 15 years in prison for self-terminating a pregnancy in another.

Explain this for me because I can’t make any sense of it whatsoever.

Utah already mandates patients wait 72 hours and watch a state-approved “information module” that presents adoption as the state’s preferred “choice” for a patient prior to abortion care. Just a reminder: Adoption is not an alternative to pregnancy; it’s an alternative to parenting. And Utah requires abortion providers maintain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, which, again, is an abortion restriction that sounds preeeeetty familiar.

Let’s not forget that last session, lawmakers passed an 18-week ban in addition to a ban on abortions based on a possible fetal Down syndrome diagnosis. The 18-week ban is on hold while a lawsuit challenging it proceeds. But maybe those bills from last session, both of which should unquestionably be declared unconstitutional, were early cries for help.

Anyways, Utah, it seems like things there have been escalating, and I’m worried because it’s so out of character and out of step with your residents. So I just had to stop and ask if you are OK. Because it seems like something’s up.

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