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Advocates and Dems question why abortion is part of Birkeland’s victim services bill

The Utah House chamber on the first day of the 2023 legislative session, Jan. 17, in Salt Lake City.
Briana Scroggins
special to KUER
The Utah House chamber on the first day of the 2023 legislative session, Jan. 17, in Salt Lake City.

As Utah’s latest abortion restrictions make their way through the Legislature, another piece of legislation is also under scrutiny.

Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland’s HB297 focuses specifically on sexual assault victims. A lot of ground is covered, like mandating law enforcement training on how to best interview survivors, compiling data on assault reports, requiring sexual violence hotlines to inform callers about how they can access emergency contraception and having the state pay for mental and prenatal care if the victim becomes pregnant.

Despite some of its progressive nods, all 14 House Democrats voted against the bill.

“I would have loved to see in some of those things where victims actually get help and get can get the services that they need,” said Democratic Rep. Andrew Stoddard. “But knowing that all of that was tied in with abortion restrictions just didn't feel right.”

The bill would also require survivors who do become pregnant to report their sexual assault to law enforcement in order to obtain an abortion. In most cases, it only allows a victim to receive the procedure within the first 18 weeks of pregnancy. A physician would also have to verify that an assault was reported to law enforcement before performing an abortion.

To Birkeland, the abortion addition was out of her hands.

“This bill does not place a new requirement or any requirement that a woman has to see law enforcement before they have an abortion,” she said on the House floor. “That policy was passed long before I became a lawmaker.”

She said the state wants to know how a physician confirmed an abortion patient was sexually assaulted. However, it doesn’t specify how a doctor verifies the assault with the police, just that they must.

During floor time before the Feb. 17 House vote, Birkeland added that if a person becomes pregnant due to rape and decides to keep the child, the state will pay the child’s medical bills for one year.

“We need to help and support these women, not just in the moment that they're raped, not just ensuring that they have a child, but they're helped throughout the process of raising that child,” she said.

Roles of crisis hotlines

The bill requires all crisis hotlines to provide survivors with mental health resources and ways to access emergency contraception.

Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, the executive director of the Rape Recovery Center, said the organization already provides the services outlined in the bill. The center also has its own therapy services to offer.

In 2021, Martinez-Ortiz said the center responded to roughly 1,383 calls on their hotline and 632 sexual assault exams, where an advocate, for example, supports a survivor at the hospital who is undergoing a rape kit.

Similar to the concerns of the minority caucus, Martinez-Ortiz said that “advocates don't want this issue to be tied to abortion.”

“It's clearly a very complex issue. And we believe in survivors having autonomy over their body and their health care decisions.”

Overall, Martinez-Ortiz has more questions about the bill than disputes. The organization didn’t testify in favor or against the legislation.

“There's not a lot for me to contest here. And I'm just a little bit confused about the intention behind the bill or what it's trying to do,” she said.

Martinez-Ortiz noted that said Birkeland has never reached out to her regarding the bill or other policies related to victim services. But if the representative were to, Martinez-Ortiz said she’s “always hopeful” when “legislators take an interest in victims and survivors issues.”

Roles of law enforcement

The bill has mandates for law enforcement as well. The biggest one requires a presentation of the number of sexual assaults reported, investigated and prosecuted to various legislative committees.

“If we have 50 rape cases a year that are called in and we're investigating only 30 of them, we'll know right away that there's a problem there,” Birkeland said.

About 88% of sexual assaults in Utah go unreported – or one in six – according to the Utah Women and Leadership Project. Martinez-Ortiz said the Rape Recovery Center’s statistics are about the same. A vast majority don’t report their assaults to the police.

Additionally, officers would have to undergo at least one hour of training to learn “how to investigate this issue and talk with them [victims] in a way that does not re-victimize them.” Law enforcement agencies would also be required to create a policy on how they investigate sexual assault cases.

Even with these provisions for law enforcement, Democratic Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost said a survivors' hesitancy to report isn’t taken into account.

“It is a great bill from the perspective of law enforcement and state agencies, but fails to incorporate the true needs and our lack of meeting the needs for the true victims, and those who are at increased risk by the very nature of engaging in a reporting in the criminal justice system,” she said.

The bill passed the House along party lines and is now in the Senate.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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