Skip to main content

A woman attends to her child as she arrives at a rally with other people at the Utah State Capitol to protest and show their support for Roe v. Wade and abortion on Tuesday in Salt Lake City, Utah.George Frey/Getty Images

For the Utah legislators and advocates who have spent decades working to ban abortion, the prospect that the Roe v. Wade decision will soon be overturned in the U.S. has produced a rush of joy – and a new determination for additional measures to constrain medical abortions and simplify adoption.

Utah is among the 13 states that have enacted “trigger laws” that can almost immediately ban most abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which made it legal to end pregnancies until the point of fetal viability. A Supreme Court draft decision leaked this week suggests the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade.

“I’m very happy – very happy,” said Karianne Lisonbee, a Republican legislator who sponsored the state’s trigger bill in Utah’s House of Representatives.

“We’ve over the years passed really good policy to make sure we’re protecting life, and we’re prepared to protect it even further if Roe v. Wade is overturned.”

Less clear is whether Utah will be willing to offer any new help to women who may soon be barred from ending pregnancies in the state.

Utah’s trigger law, passed in 2020, declares that life begins at embryonic implantation, and will make it illegal to have an abortion except in cases of rape, incest or a health emergency that threatens the life of the mother – exemptions that cover “far less than 2 per cent” of current abortions, Ms. Lisonbee said.

But she and others have also begun to consider what’s next for Utah, whose legislature has spent more than three decades seeking to limit and ban abortion. Some Republicans in the state have discussed elimination of the current abortion law’s exceptions for rape and incest.

Another focus for potential new laws is on the use of pharmaceuticals for medical abortions. One option would be a law barring the importation of those pharmaceuticals into Utah, although “enforcement would be difficult,” Ms. Lisonbee said. Another option: Erect new legal “guardrails” around the use of medical abortion, “to make sure that individuals are under the care of a competent physician were an emergency to happen,” Ms. Lisonbee said.

At the same time, Ms. Lisonbee said, adoption “needs to be easier,” by streamlining the process and making it less expensive.

“I would hope that in Utah we encourage individuals who seek an elective abortion to instead choose to place the child for adoption. I think that’s a better choice.”

Utah in 2018 counted 3,082 abortions, down by more than a third since 1990.

Brittney Nystrom, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, pledged to “remain vigilant in defending Utahns’ right to decide when and if to have a child.”

But legislators in Republican-dominated Utah, which has not elected a Democratic governor since 1985, have enacted a series of laws to constrain abortion. A decade ago, it began requiring women who want an abortion to first undergo a 72-hour waiting period and complete a mandatory information module, whose first lines are: “The State of Utah prefers childbirth over abortion.”

Mary Taylor, the president of Pro-Life Utah, was among those who helped write that module. The publication of the draft Supreme Court decision this week left her so excited “I threw my cellphone across the room,” she said Wednesday.

Her organization uses donated funds to run a mobile clinic in front of Planned Parenthood clinics, where Prof-Life Utah offers free ultrasounds and pregnancy tests. It then provides help to women who choose to deliver, including diapers and baby shower with gifts such as strollers and playpens. It counts its success in “baby saves,” with 19 last year and another 19 so far in 2022. Once women enter the mobile clinic, “there’s an 83-per-cent success rate,” Ms. Taylor said.

But if abortion is outlawed in Utah, the services her organization can provide “need to increase, like, a zillion-fold,” she said. “We need to be able to offer financial support, emotional support, resources of all kinds to women.”

But conservative states across the U.S. have resisted greater government involvement in the delivery of health care. “Utah already has robust social services,” Ms. Lisonbee said. “We’ve done a lot, and gone a long way to make sure that individuals who find themselves pregnant have the services they need to support them if they choose adoption.”

History suggests little likelihood of state legislators changing course if abortion is banned, said Karrie Galloway, president of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.

“They only want to punish, stigmatize. They don’t want to help people,” she said. “When social services or medical services for pregnant people are talked about, they’re never funded. It’s always last on the list.”

Utah currently ranks among the lowest states for Medicaid coverage of pregnancy and postpartum care. “Emergency Medicaid covers delivery and that’s it. You don’t get any postpartum care,” said Jessica Sanders, a public-health scholar at the University of Utah who specializes in family planning. She hopes an end to abortion in Utah is accompanied by “supportive policy that comes out around contraceptive access.”

Indeed, “we should be looking at ensuring that kids have access to full-day kindergarten,” said Angela Romero, a Democratic legislator in Utah’s House of Representatives. “We should ensure that working mothers have access to affordable daycare.”

But pursuing such priorities, she said, “shouldn’t be based on abortion.”

And adoption is no panacea, said Liesl Einerson, a licensed clinical social worker who has counselled thousands of women. Women who feel forced into adoption “have far worse long-term mental-health concerns, as do their children and their families,” she said. Often, “they’re sad for the rest of their lives.”

For anti-abortion advocates in Utah, however, the looming likelihood of an abortion ban in the state is raising new questions about how to respond if women travel elsewhere for abortions. Utah is bordered by Nevada and Colorado, both states where abortion is expected to remain legal. The abortion clinics in Las Vegas are a six-hour drive from Salt Lake City.

“Do we focus exclusively on support? Or do we also try to extend those protection to try to keep the women here, and support them so they don’t choose to leave the state?” said Merrilee Boyack, who chairs Abortion-Free Utah, a group that has publicly declared its intention to rid the state of Planned Parenthood.

Still, she “wouldn’t want to force a woman” to remain in Utah, she said. “We operate out of love and support and caring, and so that will be our primary focus.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.