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Judge will rule on Planned Parenthood Utah’s abortion clinic ban challenge next week

Planned Parenthood Association of Utah interim CEO Sarah Stoesz speaks in front of the Salt Lake City District Court building, April 28, 2023
Sean Higgins
Planned Parenthood Association of Utah interim CEO Sarah Stoesz speaks in front of the Salt Lake City District Court building, April 28, 2023

Saying “it would not be fair at this point to shoot from the hip,” Third District Judge Andrew Stone said he needed time to rule on Planned Parenthood’s motion to delay Utah’s new abortion clinic ban.

Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state were in court in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 28, 2023, for arguments. Judge Stone said he would make his decision by next week.

At issue is a law, simply called “Abortion Changes,” that was signed by Gov. Spencer Cox back in March. It stipulates that no new abortion clinic licenses can be issued after May 2, 2023, and abortion clinics would have to close starting in 2024. After the May licensing deadline passes and current licenses expire, the procedure must be performed at a hospital, or a clinic licensed as a hospital, with limited exceptions.

Planned Parenthood Association of America Senior Staff Attorney Hannah Swanson called the new law a work-around of Utah's near-total abortion ban, which is still held up in court after a different ruling by Judge Stone, that would put undue burdens on clinics in order to continue abortion care.

“There is absolutely no reason to require abortion providers to turn themselves into hospitals in order to continue providing care as safely as they have been doing for years,” Swanson told reporters after the hearing.

In making its case before Stone, the state said there was nothing stopping Planned Parenthood from continuing to provide abortions, as long as it adheres to the law.

“There's nothing in HB467 that would prevent the plaintiff from restructuring itself to comply with hospital requirements and obtaining a hospital license,” said state attorney Lance Sorenson.

Due to its legal interpretation, Planned Parenthood said it will stop offering abortion services at its clinics if the law is not enjoined. They see “criminal penalties, facility licensing penalties and professional licensing penalties” in the law for “anyone who provides an abortion outside of a hospital in Utah,” Swanson said after the hearing. “And we need injunctive relief from the court before May 3 to prevent those harms from shutting down abortion.”

Planned Parenthood operates three of the four clinics that provide abortions in Utah. According to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, the state’s four licensed abortion clinics can continue to provide abortions until their current licenses expire, or until Jan. 1, 2024, whichever date comes later. For its part, Planned Parenthood worries that operating as it has before could open the organization up to criminal penalties.

Even if those clinics can no longer offer abortion procedures, “Planned Parenthood’s doors will stay open,” said interim CEO Sarah Stoesz following the hearing.

“We provide a wide variety of sexual and reproductive health care, high quality, comprehensive, affordable health care,” she said. “We are proud to do that. And although we may not be able to continue to provide abortion, we will always continue to provide that other essential health care.”

Another of the arguments centers around an assertion that the Utah Constitution provides a right to abortion. As Swanson put it, the ban violates “the right to bodily integrity, to privacy, to determine one's family composition and the right to sex equality protected by the equal rights provision and the uniform operation clause [in the Utah Constitution].”

Judge Stone was reluctant to make a ruling based on that rationale because he said that falls under the jurisdiction of the Utah Supreme Court. The Supreme Court could rule on the case concerning Utah’s “trigger law” this summer.

I don't want to get into the issue of the likelihood of success [of this case] on the theory that there's a fundamental right to abortion under the state constitution,” Stone said.

State attorney Lance Sorenson argued that the Legislature is well within its right to restrict abortion access.

“The state has an interest in seeing its laws addressing health and safety take effect,” he said. “And on a general level, the public has an interest in seeing its laws take effect, especially here where there's a presumption of constitutionality.”

If the case does not go Planned Parenthood’s way, they vowed to “continue fighting in any court at any time to ensure that women's health and family health is protected.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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