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Reproductive Justice on the Hill (Yes, There Was Some!)

21 March 2017 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

Usually reproductive freedom isn’t the most triumphant area of our work on the Hill in Utah. But we’re happy to report that 2017 proved to be a nice exception (or, hopefully, the start of a new trend?)LegisUpdateBlog

Well, let's not get too ahead of ourselves! There were a few disappointments this year in the reproductive justice arena, after all. Overall, though, we had some surprising wins, while also averting some very nasty potentialities.

Let’s not forget that one problematic bill – HB107, “Perinatal Hospice” - attracted enough negative attention before the session even began, that its sponsor, Rep. Steve Handy (R-Layton), agreed to abandon it before it received a single public hearing.  

Maybe we should have had an inkling that this year would be a little different when thousands upon thousands of women and their allies marched to the Utah State Capitol on the opening day of the legislative session.

Reproductive freedom was only one of the many issues raised by the Women’s March on the Utah State Capitol, which followed an equally successful Women’s March on Washington the weekend before. But the massive wave of engagement and activism that characterized the Women’s March definitely spilled over into legislative action by many newly-mobilized Utahns in the area of reproductive rights.

As the ACLU of Utah worked on removing barriers to abortion access at the Capitol, we were buoyed and strengthened by the involvement of many new partners: Utah Women Unite, Utahns Acting for Change Together and the highly-committed volunteer army of the Reproductive Freedom Forum, to name a few! The presence of these groups truly made a difference on the hill.

One of the session’s greatest wins came in relation to HB154, “Telehealth Amendments,” an otherwise very decent tele-medicine bill proposed by Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan). This bill contained a few lines of language that would have prohibited medical professionals from prescribing medication to induce early-stage abortions via telehealth services. Similar restrictions have been adopted in other states, and, accordingly, challenged in court (particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt).

The ACLU of Utah, Planned Parenthood and others fought hard to have this unnecessary and overly restrictive language removed from the bill, and we ultimately prevailed. Senator Brian Shiozawa (R-Salt Lake City) successfully amended HB154 during its hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. The bill then sailed through the rest of the legislative process with little or no opposition, and is awaiting action by the Governor.

HB141 "Unborn Child Protection Amendments," was another high-profile and controversial abortion-related bill. In its original form, this bill sought to compel doctors to share highly questionable information with women about the “reversibility” of medication-induced abortions. Fortunately, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Keven Stratton (R-Orem), proved amenable to working with the ACLU of Utah to diminish the constitutional issues with the bill as it moved through the legislative process.

In the end, HB141 did pass and is awaiting the Governor’s signature. However, the final version of the bill does not require doctors to give women seeking a medical abortion inaccurate information about “abortion reversal” procedures that are scientifically and medically unproven. The bill does add to the increasingly long list of pre-procedure “information” the Department of Health is tasked with producing, but HB141 stops short of compelling doctors to make statements that are not medically verified.

The 2017 session actually saw the introduction of positive, proactive abortion access legislation, in the wake of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt ruling. Rep. Brian King (D-Salt Lake) introduced HB384, “Abortion Clinic Licensing Amendments.” This bill provided guidelines to Utah’s Department of Health for bringing the state into compliance with the ruling in Whole Woman’s Health, regarding hospital admitting privileges and transfer agreements (licensing restrictions on abortion providers that limit women’s access to abortion).

HB384 was introduced later in the session, and did not have time to complete its full legislative journey before running out of time. However, the bill did pass favorably out of the House Health and Human Services Committee on a 7 to 5 vote – possibly the first time ever a piece of PRO-ACCESS legislation has received a supportive vote at any level of the Utah legislative process!

True reproductive freedom includes the ability to access accurate and comprehensive information even before a young person becomes sexually active. That is why the ACLU of Utah supports comprehensive sexual education as part of our reproductive freedom work. We saw several bills related to sex ed introduced this year, and the net result was positive!

HB215, “Reproductive Health Education and Services Amendments,” a very good sex ed bill from Rep. King, died in the House Education Committee. But that loss was somewhat salved by the death of a not-so-good sex ed in the same committee! That was HB137, “Public Education Curriculum Requirements,” sponsored by Rep. Stratton, which would have made sexual abuse prevention education less accessible to public school students.

If that committee hearing produced a “wash” for comprehensive sex ed advocates, the successful passage of SB196, “Health Education Amendments,” was a clear success, many years in the making! Sponsored by Sen. Stuart Adams (R-Layton), this bill finally changed the state’s long-derided prohibition on the “advocacy of homosexuality” in the teaching of sex ed. This “no promo homo” statute was the subject of a lawsuit by Equality Utah last year, as it produces a chilling effect on the speech of teachers and effectively ignores the experience and needs of LGBTQ students.

“No promo homo” is no more in Utah – on March 20, 2017, SB196 was signed into law by Governor Herbert.

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