‘Patients will be denied care’: Utah court hears arguments against abortion clinic ban

A Utah district court judge will hear arguments on Friday against a state law that reproductive rights groups say will all but ban abortion in the state when it goes into effect on 3 May, despite the fact that abortion is legal in the state until 18 weeks of pregnancy.

The law, HB 467, which passed in March, requires abortions to be performed at hospitals instead of clinics, threatening the state’s four abortion clinics with closure. The Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and the ACLU of Utah are challenging the law, asking for a temporary injunction. According to PPAU, licensed clinics perform approximately 95% of the procedures that take place in the deep-red state.

It is not clear how hospitals will respond to the new law. “In general, Utah hospitals do not provide elective abortion procedures and each hospital system operating in the state will need to determine how to respond to HB 467 for their respective facilities,” said Jill Vicory, spokesperson for the Utah Hospital Association.

PPAU and the ACLU of Utah are also fighting in court against the state’s trigger law – an abortion ban that was passed before Roe v Wade was overturned. A district court judge granted a preliminary injunction against the trigger ban, preserving the right to an abortion up to 18 weeks of gestation. The Utah supreme court has yet to review and rule on the injunction.

“These pending restrictions are already causing chaos, confusion and fear across Utah’s health care system. We anticipate that Utah patients will be denied care as hospitals, clinics and administrators scramble to figure out if, where, and when abortions can be provided in Utah,” said Jason Stevenson, of PPAU.

Supporters of HB 467 have argued that abortion clinics can apply for a hospital license if they wish to remain open. “As a state, we deeply value human life. It’s the state’s responsibility to protect the most vulnerable and that includes the unborn,” the bill’s sponsors Utah state representative Karianne Lisonbee and Utah state senator Dan McCay, wrote in a joint statement to the Salt Lake Tribune. “We worked closely with local doctors and hospitals to ensure the statute strikes the best balance of protecting innocent life and protecting women who experience rare and dangerous complications during pregnancy.”

Critics of the new legislation say hospitals are too expensive and ill-prepared to meet the demand for the more than 3,000 abortions each year that take place in the state, and that the ability for clinics to obtain hospital-equivalent licensing would require them to be integrated into a larger hospital system.

During a joint press conference with PPAU announcing the lawsuit, attorneys for the ACLU of Utah said the new law will impact people who already have limited access to healthcare, including people who could not afford abortions in a hospital setting. “Most first-trimester abortions at Planned Parenthood cost $450, while the most expensive procedures there cost $2,000,” explained Stevenson. “Similar care at hospitals can easily cost $10,000 to $20,000 with no way of knowing the total charges” ahead of time.

The new law also contains other changes to reproductive care, for example requiring doctors to explain palliative care and perinatal hospice as alternatives to abortion in cases where the fetus is not expected to survive.

In what reproductive advocates view as a possible further threat to maternal health, five of the hospitals in the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area were recently purchased by the Catholic healthcare system CommonSpirit Health. Catholic hospitals have been documented to limit reproductive care, even in life-threatening emergencies, due to their anti-abortion policies.

In a statement, Centura Health, which will operate the new hospitals, and CommonSpirit said there will be no changes to healthcare services before they close on the multi-hospital purchase. At that point, they will transition to non-profit Catholic healthcare and will exclude elective abortions.

“Catholic hospitals respect all stages of life from conception to natural death, and as a result, do not provide certain services including elective abortions and elective sterilizations,” representatives said via email. “Catholic hospitals provide medically indicated care for pregnant women when their health is at risk. Our providers are able to discuss all treatment options with patients and offer a safe transition of care to other providers if a service desired by the patient is not offered at our location.”


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