SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a Vernal teenager who paid a man to punch her in the abdomen in an attempt to terminate her pregnancy was not seeking an abortion and should face criminal charges.
The state's high court also deemed that the Vernal man who was paid by the teenager to level the assault should be sentenced to the crime to which the man had pleaded guilty.
The woman, who was 17 years old and seven months pregnant at the time, asked Arron Harrison, 23, to help her terminate her pregnancy for $150 after she was turned away for an abortion because her pregnancy was too far along. Harrison agreed and took the woman to his home where he punched her numerous times in the abdomen.
The teen ultimately gave birth to a healthy baby, who was permanently removed from her custody by the state.
A juvenile court judge dismissed charges against the teen and a district court judge sentenced Harrison on a lesser charge, dismissing an attempted murder charge.
The Utah Supreme Court issued two rulings in the related cases Tuesday. The first determined that the teenager who was carrying the child was not attempting to secure an abortion as 8th District Juvenile Court Judge Larry Steele had determined.
"We hold that the solicited assault of a woman to terminate her pregnancy is not a 'procedure,' as contemplated by statute, and therefore does not constitute an abortion," Chief Justice Christine Durham wrote. "Accordingly, we reverse the juvenile court’s order dismissing the state’s petition and remand for further proceedings."
The teenager had been charged in juvenile court with criminal solicitation to commit murder, but the charge was dismissed after Steele deemed that the Utah code defining abortion is "unambiguous" when it states, "a woman who is seeking to have or obtains an abortion for herself is not criminally liable."
He said in his ruling that while the girl's actions were "shocking and crude," they were, nonetheless, legal under the state's current definition of abortion.
In appealing the case, attorneys for the state told the Utah Supreme Court that the law refers to a medical abortion procedure and that a beating did not amount to a procedure, which was confirmed by Durham.
"We agree with the state that the term 'procedure' in the abortion definition is confined to medical procedures," she wrote. "We deem it inconceivable that the Legislature could have intended for any act, of any nature, intended to kill an unborn child to qualify as an abortion. Our interpretation of the abortion definition necessarily excludes the alleged solicited assault of a woman."
The second ruling, written by Justice Thomas Lee, regarded Harrison, who pleaded guilty to attempted murder, a second-degree felony, for taking the $150 in payment and committing the assault.
At the time of Harrison's sentencing — and in light of Steele's ruling that the teenage girl had been seeking an abortion — 8th District Judge A. Lynn Payne determined that Harrison's offense fit the elements of both attempted murder and attempted killing of an unborn child, a third-degree felony, and that previous rulings indicated the judge should sentence on the lesser charge. Payne also wanted to avoid double jeopardy. Harrison was sentenced to zero to five years in prison.
Lee's ruling reversed the judge's dismissal of the attempted murder charge for a number of reasons, including the Utah Supreme Court ruling that the actions were not an abortion procedure.
"Our reconsideration of that decision, moreover, does not raise double jeopardy concerns because a reversal would not subject Harrison to successive prosecution but would merely reinstate his guilty plea on the attempted murder charge," Lee wrote.
Lee wrote that the sentence on the third-degree felony charge of attempted killing of an unborn child should be vacated to allow for sentencing on the attempted murder charge.
"The district court’s … analysis improperly erases the lines drawn by the Legislature between these two offenses," Lee wrote. "Harrison’s blows to (the teenager's) abdomen were hardly a medical procedure that could be denominated an 'abortion.' When Harrison assaulted J.M.S. he attempted to kill her unborn child in a manner other than by a medical procedure, and he accordingly was properly charged with and pled guilty to attempted murder."
Durham issued a dissenting opinion in the Harrison case as she questioned whether the state had the right to appeal the judge's decision to sentence Harrison to a lesser charge. She wrote that the high court lacked jurisdiction in the matter.