Utah judge to rule on state abortion clinic moratorium next week

The Planned Parenthood Association of Utah argued in court on Friday that a ban on abortion clinics would “functionally eliminate” abortion access if implemented as scheduled next week.

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After hearing arguments from attorneys representing Utah and abortion providers, state court judge Andrew Stone stated that he would rule on Planned Parenthood’s motion to defer the law the following week.

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“It would not be fair at this point to shoot from the hip,” Stone stated, explaining that he required several days to review the briefs of both parties.

Planned Parenthood argues that the Utah clinic prohibition is a backdoor strategy to further restrict abortion while legal challenges to a 2020 trigger law are pending. In response, Utah stated that abortion clinics could resubmit for hospital licenses under the new framework. Attorneys for the state argued that the court lacked sufficient grounds to overturn a law passed and ratified by elected officials because it had not been determined that the Utah Constitution guaranteed the right to an abortion.

The attorney general argued, “There is a public interest in enacting laws, including licensure laws and regulations, that promote high standards of public health and safety, even if the effect of these laws is to reduce the overall number of providers.”
Amid conflicting interpretations of when abortion clinics will lose their licenses under the law, Planned Parenthood stated that it would be compelled to cease offering abortions when the law’s provisions take effect on May 3. It administers three out of the four abortion clinics in Utah. Officials in Utah have stated that the licenses will remain legitimate until the end of the year, but Planned Parenthood has expressed concern that maintaining the status quo could expose its clinicians to criminal penalties.

“There are no other alternatives if these clinics are shut down,” said Sarah Stoesz, president, and CEO of the group’s Utah affiliate, outside of court on Friday. “Hospitals have not indicated that they will accept the care provided by licensed abortion clinics.”

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The clinic prohibition is the most recent attempt by Utah lawmakers to restrict abortions and comes less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. This decision activated two previously enacted laws: a 2019 ban on abortions after 18 weeks and a 2020 ban on all abortions, regardless of trimester, with several exceptions, including instances of risk to maternal health and rape or incest reported to the police.
The state affiliate of Planned Parenthood sued over the 2020 ban. In July of 2017, a magistrate delayed its implementation until legal challenges were resolved. Since then, the 18-week prohibition has become a de facto law.

If the clinic prohibition is implemented, the delicensing of clinics will shift the majority of abortions to hospitals, which do not typically specialize in low-cost outpatient abortions, including the provision of abortion pills. Clinics perform 95% of abortions in Utah.

State Rep. Karianne Lisbonbee, the sponsor of the clinic ban bill, told the Associated Press (AP) last month that allowing hospitals to provide abortions in the emergency circumstances outlined in the 2020 ban “strikes the best balance between protecting innocent life and protecting women who experience rare and dangerous complications during pregnancy.”
On Wednesday following the law’s implementation, abortion clinics will no longer be able to register for a license. On January 1, 2024, all clinic licenses would be revoked in order to implement a comprehensive ban.

The clinic-centered effort in Utah is exceptional among states with trigger laws, where many abortion clinics have closed since the Supreme Court’s decision last year. In states such as West Virginia and Mississippi, clinics have been closed, but in Utah, they remain operational while the courts deliberate. In the decade before Roe v. Wade was overturned, anti-abortion legislators in red states passed numerous proposals regulating clinics, including the size of procedure rooms and distances from hospitals.
The court heard the request to delay the ban’s implementation, as legislators in Nebraska and South Carolina chose not to advance restrictive abortion legislation. At least 21 states have filed lawsuits challenging newly enacted restrictions in response to the Supreme Court’s decision.

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