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Bill to ban Utah abortions after 18 weeks heads to final legislative hurdle

By Katie McKellar, KSL | Posted - Mar. 8, 2019 at 9:29 a.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Kristie Nielsen, a volunteer for Pro-Life Utah, brought 5-month-old Piper with her to testify in front of a House committee Tuesday — telling lawmakers Piper was 17 weeks along in the womb when her mother walked into an abortion clinic.

Ultimately, Piper's mother didn't have an abortion that day, Nielsen said, because she didn't have enough money. But she was desperate. With a 3-year-old daughter already, Nielsen said Piper's mom didn't believe she could care for another child.

"I don't blame Piper's mom for walking into that abortion clinic that day," Nielsen said. "She didn't understand the humanity of her baby."

But had her mother had an abortion — rather than seeking help to continue her pregnancy — Piper wouldn't be alive today, Nielsen said. She testified that after Piper was born, her mother said tearfully "I love her so much. I can't believe I almost killed her."

Nielsen was one of several pro-life advocates who gave emotional testimony in front of a packed Senate committee Thursday urging support of HB136, which would restrict Utah's window for legal abortions from 22 weeks to 18 weeks.

But the bill was also met with emotional resistance — from doctors, mothers, and legal advocates urging lawmakers not to pass a bill they said would not only restrict women's rights but also inevitably face an expensive legal challenge.

Among them was Sean Esplin, a maternal-fetal medicine doctor at Intermountain Healthcare representing a group of more than 30 maternal specialists speaking out against the bill, saying it does not "adequately exclude" certain pregnancy complications. He said it will have "unintended consequences" on mothers who could have long-term health and fertility impacts if their time window to choose an abortion is shortened.

"We are the experts who understand these issues, and you need to take some time to see how this is going to impact women and their future fertility and their lives before you pass a bill like this," Esplin said.

Members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee voted 5-2, along party lines, to advance the bill to the Senate floor — clearing a path for the bill to head toward its final legislative hurdle.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, urged lawmakers to support the bill, saying Utah cultivates a "culture of life," and as a state that values families, "Utah should be allowed to enact reasonable abortion law that reflects the will of the people."

"Utah should be the safest place in the nation for women and children, and all people, really, born and unborn," Acton said.

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.

But Utahn Cori Ward, whose voice shook nervously as she testified, urged lawmakers against passing the bill. She said "being a mother is one of the best things that's happened to me," and yet she didn't think lawmakers should shorten the legal window.

"The free agency to decide belongs to all of us," Ward said. "Unless a woman is in control of her own reproduction, she is not free."

Representatives from conservative groups including Gayle Ruzicka, president of Utah Eagle Forum, voiced support for the bill, even though the bill's sponsor acknowledged a court challenge would likely arise on the basis it likely violates constitutional rights established by the landmark federal court case Roe v. Wade.

"It interferes with a woman's most personal medical decisions and violates constitutional provisions," argued Marina Lowe, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.

But the bill comes at a time when new efforts are brewing across the U.S. to challenge the Supreme Court decision.

"It's a different court," Ruzicka said. "It's time to try."

The bill now goes to the Senate floor for consideration.

Katie McKellar

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