Utah yesterday enacted new restrictions on abortion that national antiabortion groups hope will lead to a Supreme Court challenge of Roe v. Wade.
The law permits abortions only in cases of rape or incest through the 20th week of pregnancy; when a woman's life is in jeopardy; when a doctor concludes the child would be born with physical or mental defects "incompatible with sustained survival"; or if there would be "grave damage to the pregnant woman's medical health."
A doctor performing an illegal abortion would be subject to a third-degree felony charge punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Antiabortion laws in Pennsylvania and Guam already are facing court challenges, and those two cases are expected to be argued before appeals courts later this year, They would not come before the Supreme Court until next fall at the earliest.
Dawn Johnson, legal counsel for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), said all three cases "present the Supreme Court with the opportunity to overrule Roe," its 1973 decision legalizing abortion. She said the Utah and Guam laws are the "most extreme bans" on abortion, and while Pennsylvania's law does not ban abortion outright, it requires spousal notification and a mandatory waiting period before a woman can obtain an abortion.
In urging legislators to pass a law this week, Gov. Norman Bangerter (R) said: "It's time to get this legislation before the courts so we can receive some definitive information as to what the state can do to more fully protect the sanctity and dignity of life."
Bangerter said defending the law from court challenges would be costly but that legal advisers said it could be an important tool in the battle to overturn Roe.
The Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said it will go to court to try to prevent the law from taking effect, and abortion-rights activists said they will organize a boycott of the state's tourist attractions and work against Utah's bid for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
The Utah Senate had passed a more restrictive version of the law Wednesday, but the House amended it Thursday. Concerned that the Senate version would be ruled unconstitutional, the House added the provision permitting abortion if there would be "grave damage" to the woman's "medical health." The Senate passed the new bill yesterday 19 to 10, and Bangerter signed it into law.
The National Right to Life Committee, which had helped draft the original version of the bill, denounced the final language and said it would oppose passage of any similar bill elsewhere. "The Utah Legislature was sold a bill of goods at the last minute," the committee said in a statement last night.
Passage of the legislation was never really in doubt. Seventy percent of Utah residents and 90 percent of the 104 state lawmakers belong to the Mormon Church, which considers abortion a grievous sin except in the most dire medical circumstances.
State legislatures have been considering abortion limits since the 1989 Supreme Court decision Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which gave them wider latitude in regulating the procedure. Activists on both sides say they expect to see as many antiabortion bills introduced in legislatures this year as in 1990, when more than 350 were proposed.
Burke Balch, state legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said antiabortion groups this year are focusing their efforts on legislation that falls into three categories: Bills such as those recently introduced in South Dakota and Wyoming and expected to be proposed in Alabama and Louisiana that ban most abortions.
Bills that concern a woman's right to know "scientifically accurate and non-inflammatory" information about alternatives to abortion. Mississippi and North Dakota have introduced such "informed consent" legislation. Michigan and Ohio, both of which have newly elected antiabortion governors, are expected to consider such bills in the near future.
Bills that require parental consent for a minor seeking an abortion. Iowa and Kansas have proposed such legislation.
Balch noted that only in Maryland "is the other side pushing hard." Abortion-rights activists, who hold the majority in both chambers, are working on legislation that would protect a woman's access to an abortion if Roe is overturned.
In Congress, lawmakers who support abortion rights have introduced "The Freedom of Choice Act 1991," which codifies Roe v. Wade. Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), one of the bill's sponsors, said the outlook for the bill is good. He called the 102nd Congress "the best we've had on abortion issues."
In addition, Reps. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John E. Porter (R-Ill.) have introduced legislation that requires that a woman seeking information about an unintended pregnancy be informed of all her options, including abortion. Clinics supported by federal funds for family planning services are currently prohibited from informing women about abortion. Staff writer Molly Sinclair contributed to this report.