SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah law that would ban abortion clinics has been challenged in state court by abortion rights advocates who argue it effectively prohibits abortion in the deeply conservative state.
While abortions remain legal up to 18 weeks of pregnancy in Utah, the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and the ACLU of Utah said at a news conference Monday that limiting abortions to licensed hospitals would dramatically reduce access to treatments, as roughly 95% of abortions in Utah are performed at clinics.
“Honestly, there are no realistic alternative locations for Utahns to continue to get this really essential health care,” said Sarah Stoesz, president-CEO of Utah’s Planned Parenthood affiliate. “This law wouldn’t just ‘shift care’ to hospitals — as some politicians are cynically maintaining. In fact, it would functionally eliminate access to abortion in Utah, putting the lives and health of people at risk.”
Planned Parenthood and the ACLU’s legal challenge asks the court to delay implementation of the law until courts rule on its legality. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed the legislation last month after it cleared the Republican-led statehouse, where supporters argued Utah wouldn’t need licenses for abortion clinics when courts rule in their favor and limit abortions to only exceptional and emergency circumstances.
Still, the signing of the law set off a rush of confusion among clinics, hospitals and prospective patients, who were already navigating a raft of overlapping trigger laws and legal challenges in Utah. It’s set to take effect May 3, at which time abortion clinics will no longer be able to apply to be licensed. It would institute a full ban on Jan. 1, 2024, by stripping all clinics of their licenses.
Though state officials have said clinic licenses will remain until then, Planned Parenthood attorney Hannah Swanson said “confusing licensing provisions” would force clinics to stop providing abortions on May 3, barring court intervention. She said Planned Parenthood was concerned about sections of the 1,446-line bill that it believes makes providing abortion a crime on that date.
Republican lawmakers said last month that Planned Parenthood’s claims about the legislation were inaccurate. In response to a question about currently licensed clinics, state health officials directed The Associated Press to licensing rules that do not require abortion clinics to pursue new licenses for the time being.
Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, the legislation’s Republican sponsor, said the law was a byproduct of working with doctors and hospitals to “strike the best balance of protecting innocent life and protecting women who experience rare and dangerous complications during pregnancy.”
The law has wide-ranging implications while the courts sort through legal challenges to other abortion restrictions passed by Utah lawmakers. Last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade triggered two pieces of legislation — passed years ago — which were designed to go into effect should the court roll back the constitutional right to abortion. In 2019, lawmakers passed a ban on abortion after 18 weeks and in 2020, a ban on abortions regardless of trimester, with several exceptions including for instances where maternal health is at risk, as well as in cases where rape or incest is reported to the police.
Utah’s Planned Parenthood affiliate sued over the 2020 ban, and in July, a state court delayed its implentation until legal challenges could be resolved. The 18-week ban has since been de facto law, though Stoesz said on Monday that the clinic law would be tantamount to a full ban on abortions should it take effect.
She warned that the state’s hospitals weren’t designed or equipped to accommodate patients who have sought comparatively affordable care at specialty clinics for decades. The Utah Hospital Association has yet to answer questions on their plans to adapt to the new legal landscape.
Utah’s turmoil mirrors developments in Republican strongholds around the country since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and transformed the legal landscape, prompting a raft of lawsuits in at least 21 states.
Planned Parenthood operates three of the state’s four abortion clinics and said it does not plan to discontinue the majority of non-abortion services it provides — including tests and screenings for pregnancy, cancer and sexually transmitted infections.
The new restrictions are most likely to affect those seeking to terminate pregnancies via medication because they account for the majority of abortions in Utah and the nation. Abortion medication is approved for up to 10 weeks of pregnancy and mostly prescribed at clinics though it is increasingly offered via telemedicine, owing to a pandemic-era FDA rule change.
Stoesz said the law was an attack on all kinds of abortion. She said that although she didn’t doubt capable providers worked at hospitals, she said that for most who seek it, abortion is a routine part of their medical care and best provided at a specialty clinic, not in a high-cost environment like a hospital.
“An abortion is an abortion. And this law isn’t specific to the way that the abortion occurs,” she said.
Utah lawmakers have previously noted that the law also clarifies the definition of abortion to address liability concerns about how exceptions are worded in state law — a provision they called a compromise.
Since the law’s passage, both lawmakers and Utah’s Department of Health and Human Services have said abortion clinics could apply for new licenses as hospitals.
“If an abortion clinic meets the requirements of a hospital then they may apply for a hospital license,” said Charla Haley, a state health department spokesperson, in a statement last month.
However, due to different licensing requirements, doing so could require changes for the state’s four standalone clinics, which primarily provide medication abortion and have relied on clinicians and other practitioners rather than physicians and surgeons to provide abortions.
By SAM METZ