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SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would shorten Utah's window for legal abortions to 18 weeks is one step closer to becoming law after it cleared a major legislative hurdle Tuesday.
After an at-times emotional debate, the Utah House of Representatives voted 57-15 to pass HB136. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, urged lawmakers to vote in favor of HB136, saying if they do, they're be voting for "the least among us, the voiceless, the nameless … and the most oppressed."
Currently, Utah allows abortions up to 22 weeks gestation, but many Utah doctors draw the line at 21 weeks to avoid risk of violating the law.
Support from the bill came despite the likelihood it will be challenged in court. To Acton, the estimated $1 million to $3 million in legal costs would be worth the fight.
Acton said Utah lawmakers "need to put our money where our principles are."
"How much does an abortion cost?" Acton said on the House floor. "One human life."
Across the U.S., new efforts are brewing to challenge Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established abortion as a constitutional right. Mississippi last year passed a 15-week abortion law, with exceptions for medical emergency or severe fetal abnormality, but a federal judge blocked it.
The bill passed out of the House mostly along party lines, despite Democrats' attempts to argue for a woman's right to decide whether to have an abortion.
"Just because we vote no for this bill doesn't mean we don't respect life," argued Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City.
Romero called for a "point of order," objecting when Acton began describing in graphic detail the process of second-trimester abortion, including "dismembering and crushing" the fetus in the womb.
"Do we have to go into graphic detail?" Romero questioned.
Acton argued the details were "pertinent" to the bill because "if people understood the mechanics of second-trimester abortion, they would be almost universally opposed to it."
Acton said while the bill shortens the legal abortion window, it still preserves a woman's right to have an elective abortion. The bill would also allow exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother and fatal fetal defects.
"Utah should be allowed to enact reasonable abortion laws that reflect the will of the people of our state," Acton said, calling Utah's culture one of "life, not death."
"Now is the time for Utah to change its abortion law and not be threatened in doing so," Acton said. "It's the great moral issue of our time, the issue for which our society will be judged by future generations."
But House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers should take the Constitution "seriously" and consider the cost to taxpayers if or when the law is challenged in court.
"We all also have personal values, moral values that come into play, I understand all that," he said, but urged lawmakers to also consider the cost of defending "what our legislative counsel believes is a clearly unconstitutional bill."
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, told of how 25 years ago she suffered complications from a pregnancy and she was told it was likely her unborn fetus was going to have "very, very serious medical issues."
Arent said after discussing the "heartbreaking situation" with her family, her religious leader and her doctor, she decided to have the child. Her son lived, and went on to graduate from the University of Utah with a 4.0 GPA.
"I made that decision, but I made that decision and no government told me what to do," Arent said. "And that's why I strongly encourage you to let this decision stay with the parents, their religious authority, their doctor and not have government meddling in their business."
Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, told his own story. He said when he was 12 years old he was told his mother was at risk of losing her life because she was pregnant. After having heart surgery at 45 years old, "her body couldn't take much more," he said.
But she and her family decided to "do everything we could" to save the child "because the value of that baby was just as important was my dear mother," Brooks said.
"My little sister is perfectly fine and she's 32 years old and has three kids of her own," Brooks said. "My mom continued to live 14 years later after that."
Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, urged lawmakers to support the bill, noting that it comes during a time when other states are pushing the limits of Roe v. Wade.
"Some states are valuing the privacy of a woman far beyond what Roe v. Wade previously set," he said.
Brammer said some states are making decisions that "health safety and morals favor the privacy of the woman over the potentiality of the child."
"Why can't we do the same in the opposite direction?" he questioned.
He said it was "interesting" there was an objection to Acton's graphic description of an abortion. "Why was that objection made?" he said. "Because it's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable to think about — and there's a reason why it's uncomfortable because you feel it inside of you that there is something wrong."
Brammer also argued 18 weeks is plenty of time for women to decide whether to have an elective abortion, noting it's one week longer than a typical football season.
"You have an entire NFL football season to make this decision," he said. "That is not a small amount of time."
Brammer urged fellow lawmakers to "maintain the integrity of the womb and not air on the side of turning it into a tomb."
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
Contributing: Emily Ashcraft