Prohibitions on taking unborn life have ancient roots. The Hippocratic Oath includes a pledge that doctors will not cause an abortion. The Christian triumph over paganism in the West helped establish an ethic of respect for human life that continues to be reflected in our laws. The laws of the United States have consistently protected unborn children until quite recently.
Abortion is a medical procedure that “aborts” a baby in the womb. The politics of abortion falls into two camps. First, the “right to choice” camp believes that a woman’s choice to keep the baby or not trumps the natural right of the life of the baby. The second camp, those who believe in the “right to life,” believes that life and the processes of life are sacred and that a baby in the womb is due equal protection under the law.
Clearly, there can be competing rights between the baby and the mother, even within the right-to-life view. For instance, whose life is the priority under exigent circumstances? In a medical emergency, whose life is the priority? Should the life of the mother be saved before the life of the baby or vice versa?
In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases challenging laws prohibiting abortion in Texas and Georgia. The most well known of these cases, Roe v. Wade, decided that the Constitution protected an unwritten right for a mother to choose to abort her child and the state could regulate that right only if it did not interfere with “health” considerations of the mother. The companion case, Doe v. Bolton, defined the health exception so broadly as to essentially allow for unrestricted abortion at any point during a pregnancy. In the wake of these decisions, states have consistently attempted to push back, attempting to enact protections for the unborn that are, invariably, challenged in court by abortion supporters. In 1992, many thought the Supreme Court would reconsider Roe in a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey, but the court decided to reaffirm the notion that the Constitution protects abortion. That decision created a new legal standard – that laws regulating abortion must not create an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose abortion. This subjective standard allows the Supreme Court and other federal courts to act as the final arbiters of abortion policy in the United States.
While severely limited, states may still work to discourage taking unborn life even though they cannot, for now, directly prohibit abortions.
Utah law and policy favors protecting unborn children. Activist lawsuits have narrowed the options for the Legislature to do this, but this is no reason not to attempt everything possible to protect children, including ensuring that those considering an abortion are able to make an informed choice and that young people are not coerced into an unwanted abortion.
In the 2012 session, the Utah Legislature advanced these interests with a resolution honoring pregnancy resource centers which provide assistance to mothers who might otherwise feel they have no alternative but to choose abortion. The Legislature also increased the waiting period between the initial contact with an abortion provider and the actual abortion procedure to 72 hours.
In addition to any preliminary efforts to discourage abortion and encourage respect for human life, Utah law should be prepared to provide direct protection to unborn children when the U.S. Supreme Court allows a state to exercise that option.
Article: Roe v. Wade
Brief: Abortion History Timeline
Report Card: Utah 2014
Video: Ronald Reagan
Video: Elder Russell M. Nelson