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1 year after Roe, Utah health care providers and patients wade through uncertainty

A protestor at an abortion rights rally held at the Salt Lake City and County Building on May 3, 2023. Advocates gathered to celebrate a judge's decision to hold Utah's new law that would have effectively banned abortion clinics.
Martha Harris
A protestor at an abortion rights rally held at the Salt Lake City and County Building on May 3, 2023. Advocates gathered to celebrate a judge's decision to hold Utah's new law that would have effectively banned abortion clinics.

In the one year since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the fate of abortion in Utah remains both status quo and unresolved. Since the question of abortion was sent back to states, new laws have been enacted in Utah to limit abortion, lawsuits have been filed to challenge them and court injunctions are in place.

Right now, abortion is legal in Utah up to 18 weeks of pregnancy and people can still seek out the procedure at an abortion clinic.

Two state laws are on hold. First was the state’s trigger law, which is a full ban, with some exceptions, that kicked in after the Dobbs decision. The second, passed in 2023, would have banned abortion clinics and abortions outside of a hospital setting.

With several changes to the laws governing abortion in the last year, experts say some health care professionals are still unsure of what care they can and can’t provide.

“We had a patient who had been to a few different emergency rooms because of premature rupture of membranes and had been unable to receive the care that they needed and ended up with a severe infection,” said Jessica Sanders, a University of Utah School of Medicine assistant professor and policy director at Family Planning Elevated. “And the treating maternal-fetal medicine doctor was very much concerned that the delay had happened because of policies and it was not consistent with medical recommendations and medical best practice.”

Similar scenarios, she said, have been playing out across Utah and in other states that have taken a hard line against abortion access after Roe was overturned.

“That sentiment of uncertainty is very real. Everyone wants to do the right thing. Everyone wants to take care of their patient the best way they can and practice within the legal bounds of the current laws. That is something that every provider in Utah is grappling with.”

That uncertainty, according to Sanders, comes in no small part from misinformation about what is and isn’t legal in Utah.

Last September, a group of Republican state lawmakers sent “cease and desist” letters to abortion providers and advocates. They threatened legal action if the organizations continued to provide abortions and aid people in obtaining the procedure.

The Planned Parenthood Association of Utah called the letters a “political stunt.”

The letters came after a court-issued injunction blocked the state’s so-called “trigger law.” The injunction paused the law and made abortion legal up to 18 weeks of pregnancy.

In a statement at the time, Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, said the letters were “not a legal analysis from the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel but our opinion and the opinion of the legislators who signed it.”

Despite the legal clarification, the damage was already done.

“We saw an increase in provider confusion across the state of what care they could provide to their patients in obstetric emergencies or different scenarios,” Sanders said.

Demand for contraceptives, however, has remained steady after a spike in appointments last summer, Sanders noted.

Despite legislative efforts to restrict abortion access, lawmakers have taken steps to increase financial assistance for families with young children. The legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law that would provide a tax credit of up to $1,000 per child, per year under the age of four.

On the other hand, abortion rights opponents in Utah are optimistic the courts will ultimately decide in their favor in both the trigger law and the abortion clinic ban.

The mood of the pro-life community is celebratory and optimistic and very, very happy,” Pro-Life Utah President Mary Taylor said in a KUER interview. “I really believe that ultimately our trigger ban and the abortion clinic ban, as it's come to be called, will be successful, that they will be implemented.”

But abortion rights supporters said they are not done fighting for access in Utah.

“We will go as far as it takes,” Planned Parenthood of Utah CEO Kathryn Boyd told KUER. “We will work every avenue. We will challenge every new law. We are not going to give up on providing abortion care in this state.”

Oral arguments on the state’s challenge to the injunction against Utah’s near-total abortion trigger ban are scheduled for Aug. 8, 2023, in front of the Utah Supreme Court.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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