Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Utah miscarriage case prompts new anti-choice laws

In Utah, pro-choice groups are claiming that a controversial new law will undermine reproductive rights by criminalising women for miscarrying due to “intentional or knowing” acts. The ‘Criminal Homicide and Abortion Amendments’, known as HB462, was signed into law in March by Governor Gary Herbert, despite outcry from health organisations and civil rights groups who claim that that the legislation is a dangerous precedent for prosecuting women who miscarry or terminate their pregnancies.

The bill was first introduced last year in response to case of a pregnant 17 year-old from Vernal, Utah, who – after threats from her boyfriend to leave her unless she terminated the pregnancy – paid a man to beat her in a failed attempt to induce miscarriage. While her assailant pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder, which carries fifteen years in prison, the judge sentenced him under Utah’s anti-abortion statutes instead, which carried a five-year sentence. A Juvenile Court Judge then ruled that under existing state law, the girl herself could not be criminally liable for soliciting another to cause an abortion of her unborn child.

These rulings prompted Rep. Carl Wimmer, a conservative Christian, to introduce bills to close the “loophole” preventing prosecution. Rep. Wimmer, who aims to “pass pro-life legislation which will weaken Roe vs Wade”, also aimed to criminalised so-called “reckless” behaviour that resulted in miscarriage, but was forced to revise the language after media attention. The remaining text nonetheless remains contentious. Democratic Senator Ben McAdams says that the law will “open up a Pandora’s box”, and that, “even the word ‘knowingly’ will result in unintended consequences.” Planned Parenthood’s Melissa Bird agrees that the revisions have not changed the fundamental ambiguities implicit in the legislation:

“What happens to women who are in abusive relationships?” she asks, “What happens if the abuser beats the woman and causes a miscarriage? Could he turn her in? Who would the prosecutor believe? What happens if a drug addict who’s trying to get clean loses her baby? Would she be brought up on murder charges?”

Rep. Wimmer claims such cases would not be prosecuted, because there is no intent to terminate, but Bird argues that the law will bring women under the scrutiny of law enforcement. “What we’re doing is driving women underground, and preventing them from getting health care and pre-natal care.”

Opponents, however, say that the case should have instead highlighted Utah’s restricted access to sex education, contraception and legal abortion services. Marina Lowe from the ACLU says, “The larger issue is whether or not our young people have access to information and services, especially people in remote parts of the state.” According to the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for sexual and reproductive health, 93 percent of Utah counties have no abortion provider. Dr William Adams, an abortion provider in Salt Lake City, says, “This is a nationwide problem. I became an OB/GYN in 1973, the year abortion became legal. Since then, it’s only gotten worse.”