A Utah state judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked a new law, one day before it was scheduled to take effect, that would have banned abortion clinics and potentially put a halt to most abortions in the state.
Abortion is legal in Utah up to 18 weeks of pregnancy, and only in limited circumstances. But legislators have been trying in recent years to further restrict the procedure. A state law which would ban nearly all abortions is suspended while the Utah Supreme Court considers whether abortion is protected in the Constitution.
While the more stringent ban is temporarily blocked by the legal challenge, the Legislature, dominated by Republicans, passed another bill known as H.B. 467 that was signed into law by the Republican governor and zeroed in on something else: abortion clinics, where 95 percent of all abortions are performed in the state.
Among other provisions, the law makes it a crime to provide abortion anywhere other than a hospital. Abortion clinics would lose their licenses if they performed the procedure. And even if they stopped performing abortions, no new licenses would be issued after May.
The law, signed by Gov. Spencer Cox in March, was scheduled to take effect on Wednesday. The Planned Parenthood Association of Utah — which runs three of the state’s four clinics — sued, arguing that the law would all but eliminate abortion, and that it was designed to circumvent the pending case on the more stringent ban.
On Tuesday, Judge Andrew H. Stone of Utah’s Third Judicial District agreed with Planned Parenthood. In his 22-page ruling, he wrote that the organization had offered evidence suggesting that abortion clinics had been unreasonably singled out, and that the state’s rationale for the new law was “nebulous.”
“There is nothing before the court to indicate that an injunction would be adverse to the public interest,” the judge wrote.
A spokesman for Sean D. Reyes, Utah’s attorney general, declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
In a statement, Sarah Stoesz, interim president and chief executive of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said: “While we welcome this victory, the threat to Utahns’ health and personal freedom remains dire as politicians continue to undermine our judicial process and fight the injunction against Utah’s trigger ban.”
The practical effect, for now, is that abortion services can continue uninterrupted at the state’s four clinics, three of which are in the metropolitan Salt Lake City area.
Hospitals in Utah typically do not provide abortions outside of extenuating circumstances, such as when the patient’s health is seriously threatened, in cases of severe fetal anomalies, or in the rare instances when accusations of rape or incest are reported to the police, said Hannah Swanson, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood. Public money cannot be used to finance abortions, and neither can private or public insurance.
So if the law had gone into effect, Ms. Swanson said, then people from the Salt Lake City area seeking abortion services would have had to drive some 360 miles to the nearest clinic in Glenwood Springs, Colo.
Residents in the less-populated southern part of the state would have had to go to Las Vegas, or other places in Colorado.
Still, Judge Stone’s ruling is not the final word. Planned Parenthood challenged the state’s broader ban after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.
In that case, the plaintiffs contend that the law violates the right to privacy as laid out in the Utah Constitution, and the right to determine family composition, among other arguments.
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