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SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of people gathered at the state Capitol Tuesday evening in protest of Gov. Gary Herbert's order to state agencies to stop disbursing federal funds to the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah.
The protesters gathered on the Capitol steps, just outside of the rotunda, where three dozen other protesters held a counter-rally to express their support of the governor and against Planned Parenthood, embroiled in controversy following the release of videos suggesting the sale of fetal tissue.
The competing rallies reflected the controversy over the reproductive health organization that includes calls from some lawmakers to defund or investigate the organization, while others seek support for an organization that they say is critical to women's health.
"We look at Washington as a starting point," said Planned Parenthood Association of Utah CEO Karrie Galloway. "Politics have entrenched people at this point, and Planned Parenthood has become a lightning bolt for that."
Bruce Rigby, the organizer of the counter-rally, said that although he had no problem with Planned Parenthood providing birth control and sex education, he had spent "countless hours" researching the videos and believed the organization was "corrupt at the highest levels."
The rallies follow the release of a survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, commissioned by Utah Policy, that showed 56 percent of Utahns have a very unfavorable or somewhat unfavorable opinion of Planned Parenthood.
The poll was conducted before the governor issued his order on the evening of Aug. 14.
It showed deep divides between political parties, with 79 percent of Utah Republicans reporting unfavorable opinions of Planned Parenthood and an equal percentage of Utah Democrats holding favorable opinions.
The issue also divided young and old — among those ages 18-24, 72 percent held a favorable opinion of Planned Parenthood. But among Utahns 65 and older, 65 percent had an unfavorable opinion.
Belema Boyle, a 22-year-old grad student at the University of Utah, said growing up in Nigeria helped her form her opinion on reproductive rights.
She said she watched high school and middle school girls in her neighborhood get pregnant and drop out of school, noting the unavailability of basic contraception and sex education.
"There is a middle ground," Boyle insisted. "If you're pro-life, you can preach it, but you can't force it on other people. That's the foundation of privacy. That's the foundation of freedom."
Her friend, fellow U. grad student Jason Martineau, said he felt that most people who oppose abortion object on religious grounds. When they say that a fetus has life, Martineau said, "they mean it has a soul."
"That is a belief," Martineau said. "And it is largely informed by faith and they are trying to transmute that to policy."
Several lawmakers joined the rally, including Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
Dabakis criticized the governor's decision — announced by the governor on the eve of the Utah Republican Party convention — as a calculated move to appease conservatives.
"It is one of the most outrageous acts of politics I've seen," Dabakis said, adding that no federal or state tax dollars fund abortions.
"The safe, reasonable middle ground was what Utah had," Dabakis said. "The governor suddenly changed that."
Let me emphasize, we really do care about women's health. The idea that women's health will be shortchanged in this process is not accurate.
Herbert said in the days following his announcment that his funding decision is not anti-women's health: "Let me emphasize, we really do care about women's health," Herbert said. "The idea that women's health will be shortchanged in this process is not accurate," noting there are other sources for reproductive health.
As several young women took the stand, Rep. Angela Romero reflected on how the issue had divided her own family. A practicing Catholic and a single mom, Romero said her opinions on abortion had her at odds with "most" of her family members and her church.
"We can't have conversations about Planned Parenthood, and it's unfortunate," Romero said.
Toward the end of the rally, a few arguments broke out between Planned Parenthood protesters and people holding signs proclaiming "Pray to End Abortion" and "Unborn Lives Matter."
"Look at that. It looks like a baby, doesn't it?" said one protester, holding a picture of an ultrasound, drawing negative reactions from some.
Layne Lovell, a Syracuse resident who opposes abortion, said he had stopped debating the issue of abortion with people after finding little common ground to stand on.
"People have pretty much made their minds up," Lovell said. "They're not going to convince me, that's why I don't debate any more."
Contributing: Ashley Kewish
Daphne Chen is a reporter for the Deseret News and KSL.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.