Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in the landmark case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Utah moved to ban abortion and has faced legal challenges as a result.
Compiled below are answers that address Utah’s current state of abortion, as well as reproductive health resources available to students at Salt Lake Community College.
History of Utah’s abortion policies
In January 1973, The U.S. Supreme Court decided the landmark case Roe v. Wade, which established that a woman held the constitutional privacy right to seek an abortion.
Utah lawmakers reacted to the decision by attempting to limit abortion in 1973, two months after Roe’s establishment, and again in 1991. In both instances the Utah Supreme Court, citing Roe as precedent, struck down many parts of those laws after suits were brought against the state.
In recent years, Utah has passed two laws restricting abortion. In 2019, former Governor Gary Herbert signed HB136, banning abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy or when a fetus meets the law’s definition of viable. Then in 2020, Herbert signed SB174 or what we now refer to as Utah’s abortion trigger law.
What does Utah’s trigger abortion law entail?
Utah passed the trigger law with a contingency date, stating that when a court of higher authority gives states the ability to decide abortion access, the law will go into effect. The trigger law went into effect on June 24, immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe.
According to Utah code, the trigger law prohibits abortion at any stage of pregnancy, except in cases where:
• The person seeking the abortion is a victim of rape or incest. The physician who will perform the abortion must first verify that the incident or assault has been reported to law enforcement.
• The life of the person seeking the abortion is in severe danger. This includes if the person seeking the abortion may not survive the pregnancy or if a major bodily function is at risk of substantial or irreversible impairment.
• The fetus has a lethal or severe brain abnormality. Two physicians must be able to diagnose and record in writing that the fetus has a severe brain abnormality. This does not include down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy or any other “condition that does not cause an individual to live in a mentally vegetative state.”
Within this law, the term “abortion” does not refer to the removal of a dead unborn child, the removal of an ectopic pregnancy, or the killing of an unborn child without the consent of the pregnant woman in medical emergencies.
Does the trigger law include criminal penalties?
Physicians who violate any part of the trigger law face penalties which include being charged with a second-degree felony and a possible 15-year prison sentence.
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services will report any violations of the law to the proper licensing divisions, resulting in the clinic, the physician or both losing their license.
Is abortion still legal in Utah?
Yes, according to the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, Utah’s branch of the nation’s leading single provider of abortions.
Following a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood against Utah, a state judge granted a temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction on behalf of the group, halting the trigger law.
As such, abortion procedures in Utah can continue in line with the 2019 law, with the same exceptions for rape, incest, lethal fetal malformations and medical emergencies as the trigger law.
What is happening in the courts?
The lawsuit Planned Parenthood Association of Utah filed against Utah asserts that the trigger law violates the state’s constitution.
In July, the Utah Attorney General’s office wrote to the Utah Supreme Court asking for permission to appeal the injunction. The court has not yet responded to the request, but if it decides to take up the appeal, the trigger law will be immediately reinstated.
Whether the Utah Supreme Court denies or takes up the appeal, the trigger law will remain in the 3rd District Court for much longer. Action is tentatively scheduled for September 2023.
The court only recently filled its five seats, confirming Judge Jill Pohlman on Aug. 17, giving the state’s highest court its first-ever female majority.
On Sept. 15, two Republican state lawmakers penned and sent cease-and-desist letters to lawyers defending Planned Parenthood in the suit, abortion providers and the Utah Abortion Fund. 20 GOP state representatives also signed the letters.
The letters warn recipients that clients or anyone who performs abortions outside of the trigger law, as well as anyone involved in the shipment or distribution of any abortion medications, will be met with criminal punishment if the injunction is vacated or reversed on appeal.
In a follow-up email the next day, Utah lawmakers clarified that the letters were opinions of the authors and the 20 additional lawmakers who signed, and not legal documents.
Reproductive health resources for the college community
Philip Howland, director of the medical clinic for SLCC’s Center for Health and Counseling, said there has been more interest in reproductive topics from students since the overturning of Roe.
“There have been more questions from the college community about reproductive health options and what is and is not legal,” Howland said. “We have also been asked if contraception is still legal or if it may become illegal in the future. All forms of contraception are still legal in the state of Utah. Contraception is a vital resource for women to help prevent unplanned pregnancy.”
In addition to prescribing birth control pills to students for as little as $4 at Walmart or no charge if students have insurance, a referral from the medical center allows students with insurance to obtain longer-lasting forms of birth control, such as IUDs, for free. The medical clinic also offers physicals and well-woman exams for $15.
According to Howland, a well-woman exam entails screening for cancer and usually a pap smear, pelvic exam, clinical breast exam, reviewal of the patient’s menstrual history, and answering of any questions regarding sexual health or other reproductive questions.
For more information on what resources are available at SLCC’s medical clinic, questions or to make an appointment, visit the clinic’s web page or call 801-957-4268.