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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s abortion laws allow exceptions for rape cases — but only if victims have reported to police. While this requires law enforcement and doctors to work together to help victims of sexual assault seeking abortion care, the state has not established a uniform process to ensure this happens.
Courts have temporarily suspended Utah’s trigger law banning all elective abortions, but that measure and the current law — which bans abortions after 18 weeks — both require rape victims who seek medical abortion providers first report the sexual assault to law enforcement. And both measures require doctors to verify these reports with law enforcement.
However, the legislation does not specify the level of verification needed to satisfy the law, how law enforcement should respond to attempts by medical professionals to confirm that a victim has reported an assault, and how law enforcement order should screen people who identify themselves as health care professionals. seek information on the victims.
“The vast majority of assaults go unreported,” said Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center.
Even so, sexual assault rates in Utah are above the national average and, as KSL investigators have previously reported, sexual assaults are poorly tracked and under-prosecuted.
“Reporting an assault can be as traumatic as the assault itself,” Martinez-Ortiz said.
Reporting an assault can be as traumatic as the assault itself.
–Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, Rape Recovery Center
She said the law further victimizes people who have been imbued with sexual violence and will have a devastating impact on survivors.
“Rape already fundamentally robs survivors of their bodily autonomy, freedom and choice. To force people to press charges is to further suppress their bodily autonomy and further victimize them.”
In a recent court filing in support of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah’s lawsuit to block the state’s trigger law, the Rape Recovery Center raised concerns about the law’s requirements on survivors, doctors and law enforcement, noting the lack of clarity in the law. .
“In the opinion of the RRC, the criminal prohibition of abortion, even with the exception of reported rape, will have devastating effects on survivors of sexual assault and will only serve to discourage survivors from getting abort,” the document reads.
“We want to encourage these mothers to seek help as soon as possible,” said Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton.
McCay is the primary sponsor of SB174, the trigger law the Utah Legislature passed in 2020, in preparation for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
In a June 8 interview, McCay did not have clear answers to questions about the process by which doctors should seek to verify that sexual assaults have been reported to law enforcement.
“That’s a great question. I know they’re able to verify it now, and so I don’t know how it works right now,” he said. “I should spend some time and give you that answer.”
Despite multiple follow-up requests, McCay never provided additional information on how the vetting process should work or what level of vetting a doctor needs to move forward.
“Is there a database that they would query? – meaning they could have access to other criminal records on their patients and vice versa, then law enforcement could have access to medical records they shouldn’t have access to – Could it be a phone call? How do they verify that this individual is even a doctor and maybe not an ex-boyfriend trying to harass a woman?” lawyer Teneille Brown.
Brown is a professor at the University of Utah and specializes in health law, but only represented herself when speaking with KSL. She said the legislation blurs the lines between medical professionals and law enforcement in troubling ways.
“I don’t think they thought about that logistics at all,” Brown said.
KSL investigators contacted the Utah Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety to ask about the process.
A DPS spokesperson wrote in an email: “The Department of Public Safety is not aware of any guidelines or procedures accompanying this change.”
In a separate email, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services wrote that there were “no plans to issue statewide guidelines for physicians or law enforcement, because we have no authority over criminal laws.”
When KSL followed up with the Legislative Assembly, a Senate Majority spokesperson noted that the requirement that a sexual assault be reported to law enforcement had long been part of the law on Utah Abortion and said they were “not aware of any issues”.
The requirement appears in legislation passed in Utah in 1991, again in 2009, and in measures enacted since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
But Brown said that requirement was largely irrelevant until now because, under Roe v. Wade, victims of sexual assault in Utah could access abortion care until fetal viability without reporting to the police.
“Very, very few rape victims wait until they are in their third trimester to have an abortion,” Brown wrote in an email. “Indeed, the vast majority of third-trimester abortions are for medical emergencies and fetal abnormalities. So it’s not at all surprising that this wasn’t an issue – it was almost never a basis for a third trimester abortion.
A spokesperson for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah confirmed that under Roe v. Wade, there were only “a handful” of cases a year in which staff had to confirm a sexual assault report with law enforcement.
“Our staff are working closely with police to confirm that the rape was reported,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. They did not answer specific questions about the confirmation process.
Now, under new abortion restrictions in Utah, victim reporting and the ability for doctors to confirm those reports with law enforcement will be much more important.
“If anyone feels like it’s not cooked or you know, or it hasn’t been fully thought out, I think they’re underestimating the ability of law enforcement and of our medical providers to help us understand this,” McCay said.
There are several dozen police departments in the state of Utah with varying resources, policies, and procedures.
Brown said the reporting and verification process required by Utah’s abortion bans should be clearly defined and applied consistently among doctors and law enforcement across the state.