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University of Utah Health workers walk out to protest the abortion ban and the fall of Roe

University of Utah Health abortion ban walkout-2, Vicki Wilkins, July 7, 2022
Ivana Martinez
Dr. Vicki Wilkins, a pediatric hospitalist at University of Utah Health protests Utah's trigger ban, July 7, 2022.

At the main University of Utah Hospital campus in Salt Lake City, 100 feet outside the John A. Moran Eye Center, about 60 health care workers walked out Thursday in protest.

Some came out of surgery in their green scrubs and face masks, others in their white coats holding up neon signs. They voiced their dissent as Utah’s trigger law looms over doctors’ ability to perform abortions.

“We feel like it's really part of human rights and women's rights to be able to make choices about our own bodies,” said Dr. Marissa Larochelle, assistant professor of ophthalmology & visual sciences.

University of Utah Health abortion ban walkout-1, July 7, 2022
Ivana Martinez
University of Utah Health doctors show up to support abortion access in health care during a walkout at the University Hospital, July 7, 2022..

Larochelle organized the walkout alongside her colleague Dr. Rachel Simpson. Larochelle said in a conservative state like Utah, it often feels like their voice may not matter.

“But we can't do nothing,” she said. “So I wanted to just make our voice known, that we do see the need for women's rights and abortion rights in this state.

Over the last two weeks, providers have had to navigate a rapidly changing legal landscape.

When Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Utah’s trigger law quickly went into effect, banning nearly all elective abortions. Then Third District Judge Andrew Stone halted the law with a temporary restraining order that is set to expire on July 12.

Shortly after the restraining order was issued, legislation from 2019 went into effect banning abortions after 18 weeks. 

The stakes are high for providers, who can face second-degree felony charges and up to 15 years in prison for performing an abortion under Utah’s pending trigger law.

Dr. David Turok, chief of the Division of Family Planning at the University of Utah in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said it’s challenging trying to navigate this space. He was not at the walkout.

“These kinds of laws make it harder on physicians,” he said. “And the penalties are dramatic. Physicians are in a very tricky situation, sometimes having to make the most challenging decisions quickly. And if years of prison time is hovering over that decision. People will not make their best decisions.”

University of Utah Health abortion ban walkout-5, July 7, 2022
Ivana Martinez
University of Utah Health workers walk out on Thursday, July 7, 2022, in opposition to Roe v. Wade's overturning.

Turok said the university hospital is determined to follow the law but that hasn’t been easy to do with the shifting legal system. He said over the last couple of weeks there’s been a “heightened awareness” among his patients, many of whom are seeking contraceptive care.

That’s similar to what other providers are seeing. Dr. Misha Pangasa, a board certified OB-GYN, said many of her patients are scared and are looking for permanent options for birth control. She was not involved with the walkout.

“One of the things that I've seen is younger and younger patients who are seeking sterilizations because they feel certain that they do not want to have children and they are absolutely terrified of what's going to happen in this country,” she said.

Both Pangasa and Larochelle said abortion restrictions will disproportionately affect marginalized groups of people.

Marginalized communities who are already the most affected by pregnancy-related morbidity and pregnancy-related mortality,” Pangasa said. “Those are the people who are not going to be able to access resources, who are often going to have to give birth when they [don't] want to. I don't think that there's a labor and delivery unit in this country that is prepared for the increase in that birth rate.”

She pointed to severe staffing shortages impacting many hospitals around the country and the lack of baby formula.

With the temporary restraining order on the state’s trigger ban soon to expire, Pangasa hopes logic prevails.

“This has such overarching implications for so many people,” she said. “And I'm still really hoping that at that hearing next week that's going to be recognized and that we're going to be able to provide care in a reasonable way to patients going forward.”

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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