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What Brett Kavanaugh's Confirmation Could Mean For Abortion In Utah

Renee Bright / KUER

As President Trump's nominee moves closer to being confirmed to the nation's highest court, Utahns on both sides of the abortion debate are considering what Brett Kavanaugh could mean for Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

"You can never tell," said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, a staunchly anti-abortion member of the Utah Legislature.

Like others, Lisonbee has been watching some of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, where Democratic senators have tried to take Kavanaugh's temperature on hot button issues like abortion.

"I would hope that whoever sits on the Supreme Court that they would look at things reasonably and rationally, and I believe that it would be common sense to take a look at Roe and revisit some of these egregious abuses that are happening," said Lisonbee.

During the 2018 general session, Lisonbee sponsored a bill to outlaw abortions performed after a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome, following similar efforts in Ohio and Indiana.

The legislation stalled due to concerns about the bill's constitutionality, but Lisonbee said she plans to reintroduce the legislation in the next session with a few modifications that could help it pass.

Because Utah is a very red state and we have a supermajority in our Legislature, we rely heavily ... on case law, and Roe v. Wade in particular. — Heather Stringfellow, Planned Parenthood

Heather Stringfellow, vice president of public policy for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said she would expect to see an increase in bills like Lisonbee's under a more conservative Supreme Court, especially if conservative lawmakers felt the precedent was in doubt.

"Because Utah is a very red state and we have a supermajority in our Legislature, we rely heavily — the folks lobbying on reproductive rights at the Capitol — on case law, and Roe v. Wade in particular," she said.

Stringfellow said she thinks Kavanaugh has been sidestepping the issue during the hearings for a reason.

"If in fact his position is that he feels that Roe v. Wade is a precedent-setting case, then he should say that," she said. "And the fact that he has not concerns me greatly."

"An Undue Burden"

Mackenzie Martin is also worried about Kavanaugh's confirmation. The 25-year-old native Utahn said her experience with the state's abortion regulations nearly cost her life after she was diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy in 2015.

"I had an IUD, an intrauterine device, which is one of the most effective forms of birth control," she said. "So I was not expecting to be pregnant and that was not in my plan."

After a positive at-home test, Martin right away went to her OB-GYN who confirmed her pregnancy. But he said he did not provide abortion services and would not typically perform an ultrasound until around 10 weeks.

She quickly made an appointment at another clinic that provided comprehensive family planning services. From there things just got more serious.

"The woman who did my ultrasound said, 'Oh, there's no nothing in your uterus. And I said, 'What do you mean there's nothing in my uterus? Is this is a sick joke?' Like I know there's something in there."

At that point, Martin suspected she might have an ectopic pregnancy, in which a fertilized egg is implanted outside the uterus — most often in the fallopian tube. Before she could do more blood work, though, Martin started bleeding. She called the clinic again and was told to go straight to the hospital.

Martin was successfully treated for the condition, but said Utah's targeted restrictions for abortion providers, sometimes referred to as TRAP laws, created an undue burden. As she sought care, she said, she not only had to change providers but was made to watch a video and read literature discouraging the procedure — and wait 72 hours.

"I really do feel like that holding period put my life in danger," she said. "If I would have been able to have an ultrasound that day, the ectopic pregnancy could have been confirmed a lot earlier."

Anyone's Guess

But even those opposed to abortion aren't so sure Kavanaugh's confirmation will be a slam dunk for overturning Roe.

Mary Taylor, president of Pro-Life Utah, said from what she's seen, Kavanaugh is being strategic.

"I think it's hard to say what he will do, but I am comfortable that he will interpret the Constitution and not try to legislate from the bench," she said.

I think it ultimately will happen, but I don't think it's in the near future and I don't think that Brett Kavanaugh is the silver bullet to make that happen. — Mary Taylor

Taylor said she thinks Roe has a higher likelihood of being overturned but that doesn't mean it will happen anytime soon.

"I think it ultimately will happen, but I don't think it's in the near future and I don't think that Brett Kavanaugh is the silver bullet to make that happen," said Taylor.

She said the shift toward a more conservative high court won't affect her group's activities too much, though she said they may "push the envelope" a little in lobbying for legislation they support, including the Down syndrome abortion ban.

If there is one point that both abortion rights and opponents agree on, however, it's that the debate over abortion is unlikely to be quelled by a 5-4 conservative-tilted court.

Mackenzie Martin, who now lives in Montana, said her experience has made her a more vocal advocate for reproductive rights in the current political climate.

"It's easy to forget that there's real people behind these laws," she said. "And I'm one of the real people, where I didn't have great access to health care based on where I was living and I was lucky that I didn't bleed to death alone and afraid. ... That's not the reality for everyone."

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Rep. Karianne Lisonbee's had did not passed out of committee. The legislation passed out of both chambers' committees but not the full Senate. The post has been updated. 

Julia joined KUER in 2016 after a year reporting at the NPR member station in Reno, Nev. During her stint, she covered battleground politics, school overcrowding, and any story that would take her to the crystal blue shores of Lake Tahoe. Her work earned her two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. Originally from the mountains of Western North Carolina, Julia graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2008 with a degree in journalism. She’s worked as both a print and radio reporter in several states and several countries — from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to Dakar, Senegal. Her curiosity about the American West led her to take a spontaneous, one-way road trip to the Great Basin, where she intends to continue preaching the gospel of community journalism, public radio and podcasting. In her spare time, you’ll find her hanging with her beagle Bodhi, taking pictures of her food and watching Patrick Swayze movies.
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