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Utah lawmakers want to repeal abortion clinic ban hoping it will speed up trigger law case

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Utah lawmakers want to repeal abortion clinic ban hoping it will speed up trigger law case

Feb 27, 2024 | 8:10 am ET
By Katie McKellar
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Utah lawmakers want to repeal abortion clinic ban hoping it will speed up trigger law case
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House Majority Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Syracuse, is pictured during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

Hoping it will streamline the implementation of Utah’s 2020 trigger abortion ban should the Utah Supreme Court uphold it, lawmakers are advancing a bill to repeal portions of last year’s legislation that bans abortion clinics. 

The Utah House last week approved HB560 on a 59-10 vote, with Democrats voting against. Monday, the bill won approval from a Senate committee. 

It now goes to the full Senate for consideration. 

Last year, the GOP-controlled Utah Legislature passed HB467, a bill to end licensing and operation of abortion clinics and requiring that abortions be performed in hospitals with limited exceptions. The bill’s passage came as lawmakers waited for a lawsuit currently tying up Utah’s trigger law that bans almost all abortions in Utah. 

It’s been four years since the passage of Utah’s trigger law, SB174, which would ban abortions at any stage of pregnancy except in certain circumstances. Those include cases of rape or incest, if the mother’s health is seriously at risk, or if two maternal fetal medicine physicians agree the fetus has a lethal birth defect or a severe brain abnormality.

Utah lawmakers want to repeal abortion clinic ban hoping it will speed up trigger law case
A pro-choice activist holds up a sign during a rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade May 3, 2022 in Washington, DC (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In June 2022 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, removing the constitutional right to abortion, Utah’s ban became active, but was quickly put on hold by legal challenges in the state.

Today, lawmakers are still waiting. In the meantime, abortions remain legal in Utah up to 18 weeks of most pregnancies under a 2019 law, still in effect. 

While the Legislature waits on the Supreme Court, the bill’s sponsor, House Majority Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said she hopes to “simplify the process for our underlying trigger law to be heard by the (Utah) Supreme Court” by rolling back the abortion clinic ban, she told the House Judiciary Committee last week.

“We anticipated and hoped that long before this date the Supreme Court would have decided on the underlying question of our trigger law,” Lisonbee said. “Unfortunately this has been long and drawn out, and we have no indication from the Supreme Court — even after two years — that they will be hearing that case.” 

Lisonbee said she’s consulted with “legislative attorneys and other attorneys” in the state, and she believes the current clinic ban is “muddying up the question before the (Utah) Supreme Court.” 

In August, the Utah Supreme Court heard arguments about whether an injunction on the trigger law should stay in place. Also last year, a 3rd District Court judge blocked the abortion clinic ban from being enacted when he approved a preliminary injunction sought by Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah. 

Lisonbee said her bill would only repeal portions of HB467 that are already enjoined in court, so it would have no practical effect while the courts sort through the litigation. But it would “simplify the process” if the trigger ban “is kicked back down to the district court” by the Utah Supreme Court. 

The debate

While several religious, anti-abortion advocates spoke against Lisonbee’s bill, accusing Utah lawmakers of not doing enough to stop abortions, other anti-abortion groups supported her legislation as a tactic to enact Utah’s trigger ban faster.

Mary Taylor, president of Pro-Life Utah, said that when the abortion clinic ban was passed last year, “most of us did anticipate that the trigger abortion law would survive the court challenge and go into effect in a very short time.” Until then, the abortion clinic ban would have “provided a smooth transition,” she said. 

“But now over a year and half since the trigger bill was enjoined both bills remain enjoined with no end in sight,” Taylor said, saying thousands of “unborn babies have died” in the meantime. “We cannot continue to wait.”

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, also supported the bill. “Anything that will save babies is what I’m in favor of,” she said.

Shireen Ghorbani, chief corporate affairs officer for Planned Parenthood of Utah, said the provider is neutral on the bill. However, she expressed concern about the “legislative whip sawing.”

“That is the outcome of a system that seems to be more interested and concerned with inserting itself into people’s most private and personal medical decisions than it is in coming to the table with partners to find solutions for complex — and really needed — support (for families),” Ghorbani told the House committee last week.

She had similar comments for the Senate Health and Human Services committee on Monday. 

“The cycle of passing and repealing laws only feeds uncertainty and makes this a more dangerous state for patients, health care providers and families,” Ghorbani said. 

Of the 2,540 Utahns that sought and received abortions last year, Ghorbani said “they deserve to live in a state that doesn’t have constant chaos around this issue.” 

Utah lawmakers want to repeal abortion clinic ban hoping it will speed up trigger law case
The entrance to the Utah Supreme Court inside the Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City is pictured on Wednesday, January 3, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City — who is also running as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate challenging Utah Gov. Spencer Cox — spoke against Lisonbee’s bill during the House committee’s hearing and on the House floor as a “separation of powers” issue between the legislative and judicial branches. 

He argued it would “directly and explicitly” interfere with ongoing litigation. 

“(The courts) have invested an enormous amount of time and energy and resources in this litigation. And then we come along and we stick our fingers in the process,” King said. “We should be more careful and respectful to allow litigation to play out once the table has been set by our actions as a Legislature.”

King also argued against the underlying abortion ban, saying Utah lawmakers are on the “wrong side of human rights on this issue. We’re on the wrong side of issues involving bodily autonomy. We’re on the wrong side of civil liberties. We’re on the wrong side of history.” 

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, contested King’s comments, arguing even though a court has enjoined the trigger law, that doesn’t mean “so is the Legislature.” He also took issue with Utah being on the wrong side of history on the issue, arguing the “momentum” on abortion issues is “clearly going toward a recognition of personhood” earlier and earlier in pregnancies. 

On the House floor, Lisonbee also pushed back against King, calling his comments “ironic and frankly disingenuous” while noting he’s running a bill with similar language. 

King’s HB504, which hasn’t been given a legislative hearing, would repeal the abortion clinic ban and allow abortions to be performed in clinics. But it would also include other language to remove the 72-hour waiting period before an abortion could be performed, among other provisions. 

Hoping for a ‘moot’ issue

Lisonbee repeated her arguments before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Monday, stressing it “does not authorize any abortions at all.” 

“The whole purpose of this bill, as babies’ lives hang in the balance, really is that we want our trigger bill. We believe it will be upheld as constitutional and we want that decision made,” Lisonbee said. “Saving babies is our goal.”

Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, pointed out last year when the abortion clinic ban was being debated, ‘We said, ‘Hey guys, leave the clinics alone.” Now, she clarified Lisonbee’s bill won’t have a practical effect depending on the outcome of the court battles. 

If the Utah Supreme Court finds the trigger law to be constitutional, it will “basically make everything else moot,” Lisonbee said, including the abortion clinic ban, since abortions would essentially no longer happen in Utah other than under SB174’s exceptions. 

The Senate committee voted to advance the bill on a 5-0 vote. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration. 

The 2024 legislative session ends before midnight on Friday.