Utah is becoming the new front line in the abortion wars and attacks on women’s health. The state passed two new anti-abortion laws that are among the most extreme in the nation. One of these laws bans all abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy, regardless of whether or not the fetus is viable.
In Utah, pregnancy-related deaths have occurred an average of every 9 days, and Utah’s trigger law is predicted to make matters worse. Unfortunately, when legislators control personal medical decisions, they practice medicine without a license and our health care suffers. Although the University of Utah is a national-ranked medical center and we are fortunate to have excellent hospitals, lawmakers are pushing Utah into the abyss of 19th-century medical ignorance.
This has occurred because the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision unleashed draconian pregnancy legislation. The after-effects will harm thousands of American women each year. For example, Utah’s trigger law prohibits most abortions even when the mother’s life is at risk. Thankfully, a Utah judge placed the law on temporary hold because of a Planned Parenthood lawsuit.
A significant reason abortion is necessary is because many pregnancies don’t go well. Pregnancy can damage a woman’s physical and emotional health. These harms are more likely to occur among women with pre-pregnancy conditions, including cardiac and kidney disease, hepatitis, high blood pressure, diabetes and untreated depression. Also, cancer and multiple sclerosis treatments increase pregnancy’s health risks.
While the United States has the worst maternal death rate of the 11 wealthiest nations, Utah’s per capita pregnancy-related mortality is even worse. Compared to 2005, Utah’s pregnancy-related deaths in 2019 tripled. Furthermore, government-forced pregnancy laws like Utah’s are predicted to increase those deaths by another 24%.
Besides death, 50,000 American women suffer strokes, heart attacks, liver damage and diabetes while pregnant. In addition, 300,000 American women develop preeclampsia each year. This pregnancy-related illness can evolve into eclampsia, which results in seizures and organ failure. Although close monitoring can help prevent some of these pregnancy-related harms, Utah ranks 34th in maternal health care and a lowly 45th for women’s access to care.
Utah is not alone. Nearly 21 million women have already lost their ability to choose whether or not to continue their pregnancy. But in Utah, it gets worse. The trigger law mandates government-forced pregnancies even in cases of rape and incest. There were 1,822 reported rapes in Utah in 2019. Utah now ranks 9th highest per capita in the U.S. for reported rapes.
The number of rapes is far higher than the number that have been reported. Only 11.8% of people who have been raped or sexually assaulted in Utah report the crime to law enforcement. Forcing a woman to bear the rapist’s child makes Utah a cruel perpetrator of long-term anguish and trauma for thousands of abused women.
It is clear that the right to safe and legal abortion is under attack like never before. Prior to fetal viability, a woman should be able to choose whether or not to continue her pregnancy in consultation with her physician. That is the definition of health care, not unlike deciding when to begin radiation or chemotherapy, have surgery, or refrain from any medical treatment. So why would any state violate a woman’s right to her personal autonomy and self-preservation?
The midterm elections are upon us. If you believe Utah and other states should allow a woman the freedom to decide her reproductive health, vote for candidates more likely to make this a reality.
Linn Goldberg, M.D., is a professor emeritus at the Oregon Health and Science University, clinician and research scientist. Goldberg has worked with Salt Lake City Schools using his in NIH-sponsored drug and alcohol prevention programs. He received national and international awards for health promotion and was awarded NIH funding to reduce pregnancy risks.